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To Be Still

By Alela Diane. Rough Trade.


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It is no misnomer that singer/songwriter Alela Diane Menig falls into the growing musical community known as "New Weird Americana" or "Freak Folk." What's interesting about her segment of this developing "scene" or movement are the roots, which derive from British folk traditions, which in turn borrow from earlier Gaelic musical traditions, namely Scotland, Ireland and Wales. One might easily think of Sandy Denny or Fairport Convention (or Ireland's Mary Black) when you first hear Diane's voice. But, it is only a hint of her depth and influences.

In contrast to her pared-down preceding 2006 release, The Pirate's Gospel, which caught the attention of a number of critics (mostly in Britain), her sophomore offering, To Be Still, presents a richer sound and more layered arrangements. Diane, who hails from Nevada City, Calif., where a diverse group of musicians such as Joanna Newsome and Adam Kline (of Golden Shoulders) have also resided, recorded and wrote the bulk of To Be Still in the rural confines of Grass Valley (with some additional recording in Portland). The songwriter's father, Tom Menig, co-produced and co-recorded To Be Still (as well as her previous effort). He aided in fleshing out Diane's songs with her assembled "band," which features Pete Grant on pedal steel, Tom Bevitori on bass, Craig Thomas keyboards, Matt Bauer banjo, and Vetiver's Otto Hauser on percussion, drums. They provide a sensitive balance, complimenting the core of Diane's voice and song.

Tracks such as the gently swinging "The Alder Trees," the angelic, graceful "Every Path," the swirling "My Brambles" and the title track, "To Be Still," also reflect influences derived from lesser-known U.S. folksingers of the '60s like Karen Dalton and Judee Sill, along with British songwriter Vashti Bunyan, whose own musical career has been revived, thanks to members of this so-called "New Weird Americana." While the opening cut, "Dry Grass & Shadows," accompanied with Peter Grant's fluid pedal steel lines, suggests a bow towards country-rock influences a la Flying Burrito Brothers or the Grateful Dead (her father is a longtime member of The Deadbeats, a Dead cover band). "Aged Old Blue" is a tender duet with underground folk legend Michael Hurley. However, in Diane's sure hands, the songs never sound nostalgic. There's enough edge to her execution so that they never lull you completely, unlike Vetiver's recent outing, Tight Knit.

To Be Still essentially comes down to understated power in Alela Diane's vocal delivery: athletic without being flashy. She is unafraid to reach at will for those high notes, the rippling falsettos that fluctuate in pitch. Her skill appears natural, never forced. The result is a recording that captures a rising talent, whose songwriting approaches darkness and light in equal measures, with an amount of ease. No simple task.


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