Music Reviews

posted: March 18, 2009

Alela Diane’s Latest To Be Still

Rough Trade CD
Alela Diane’s Latest

Alela Diane Menig got her start in the psych-folk scene playing with fellow Nevada City resident Joanna Newsom, but her songs are more rooted in traditional Americana than her harp-playing confederate. On To Be Still, her second full-length album, she sings of simple themes that are grounded in tradition such as the gentle sounds in the forest (“The Alder Trees”) and collecting shells and beach glass in the sand (“The Ocean”). While these subjects may seem guileless to a fault, this singer-songwriter veers these spare tales away from Appalachia by suggesting images closer to the silver mines of the Sierra Nevada than the coal mines of West Virginia.

The Americana genre is indeed crowded these days, and Alela Diane distinguishes herself with a slightly Celtic lilt to her vocal phrasing. This is particularly effective on songs such as “White As Diamonds” when she delivers such lines as “Some hearts are ghosts/Settling down in the dark waters/Just as the silt grows heavy.” Her guitar-playing sets her apart from the others as well, with melancholy arpeggios suggesting a certain mystery and danger in lyrics such as “Our lives are buried in snow” (also from “Diamonds”).

To Be Still is certainly true to its name-it’s a delicate effort that may require more than one listen to uncover its depth. Like most Americana, it can sound deceptively simple and even easy, but there’s a skewed sensibility to these songs that capture an odd time and place that hasn’t seen a lot of traffic over the years. Like Newsom, Alela Diane inhabits a quiet and insular world full of fanciful exclamations and strange observations. If you’re not too much of a realist, you may just want to purchase some real estate there.

–Marc Phillips