Album Review – EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints
Seeing the noise-folk band Gowns at the House of Nostromo, a dock warehouse in west Oakland, is imprinted in my memory. The place had uneven, large wooden boards for a floor and the residents built themselves rooms in each corner out of plywood. Against one warehouse wall, between two rooms, there was a small, dark stage facing a tool area for bicycle maintenance. I came to this show with a girl that had a penchant for mixing pharmaceuticals and alcohol. She stumbled around, coming in and out of consciousness, taking refuge, propped against a wall, between two of her friends while Gowns played. My date’s experience was likely similar to what Erika Anderson of Gowns experienced (or currently is experiencing) in her own turbulent youth, listing off drugs, describing the trips, and filling the wood putty of her numb existence into a hole. Anderson and Ezra Buchla, the other member of gowns and son of synthesizer god Don Buchla, only had one standalone album. It was called Red State and seemed to be created by bitter winters and upheld by the inevitable pillars of drugs. From the time of my introduction to Red State it was forever on reserve for bad weather, depression, and solitude. Gowns are no longer but Anderson still makes strung out folk songs under a solo project called EMA.
In her to be released album Past Life Martyred Saints (May 10th, 2011), EMA keeps the singer-songwriter ethic that was present in between synthesizer excursions and post-production noises present on Red State. With acoustic guitar and synthesizer accompaniment, Anderson still relishes the emotionally strained vocal style that’s one part too many cigarettes and one part internal anguish. Her songs don’t lead, they pull, not dragging, but in the sense that Anderson exhibits a confidence which doesn’t leave one much time to decide whether or not to follow. The second song, “California,” is an anthem trading the place that many of us share with Anderson for nostalgia. I can hardly think of two bad things to say about California but when Anderson chimes in with the words “Fuck California,” I begin to mull over California’s various merits and whether or not I like Mexican food that much. Still, Anderson seems to have a soft spot for her past life and old friends, martyred saints, and the song evokes thoughts of past lives with schizophrenic companions amidst the mediocrity of a small, Midwest town.
There are a few gems on Past Life Martyred Saints. “Marked” is a beautiful song, first officially released on the 2009 part live, part studio Broken Bones LP. The original “Marked” was a powerful, multi-instrumental hymn. The new recording is more lo-fi, backed by acoustic guitars, and it leaves enough space for Anderson to lay out her fragility before the distorted, crushed background synthesizer crumbles in.
“Marked” and “California” are great songs but what really gets to me about Past Life is that it is chock full of chants. Here they are in their full glory and you can be the judge:
Grey Ship: I hear a choir, I hear a symphony
California: I used to carry the gun
Anteroom: if this time through we don’t get it right. I’ll come back to you in another life.
Marked: I wish that every time he touched me made a mark
Breakfast: Mama’s in the bedroom, don’t you stop / you feel just like a priest to me
Butterfly Knife: take the hair and turn it white