Alela Diane - To Be Still
Record Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: February 17, 2009
What makes folk one of the most powerful and enduring forms of music is its ability to tell a story without noisy feedback or raucous distortion drowning it out. There's something startlingly electric that takes place when an artist shifts the emphasis from the music to the lyrics, and Alela Diane captures it with laudable precision on To Be Still. It's not that such a case requires the quality of the music to tank; rather, the lyrics are the highlight of each song. Take this album for example - Diane sets some elegant lyrics about lovers, nature and going home over some gorgeous, yet conventional folk/country echoes to create one of the most potent folk albums of 2009. How's that for technique?
To Be Still is a work of art in the truest sense of the word. From the country pace of "Dry Grass & Shadows," to the sprawling violins in "White as Diamonds," to the oriental effect of "Every Path," all urged on by Diane's arresting vocals, the album engrosses without fail. "Strong spines of valley hills / All overgrown in gold / Look softer than a spool of old silk thread," sings Diane on the opening track, and despite the fact that we know she's painting some luxurious imagery about nature, the lyrics sound like they would be just as appropriate describing the beauty of her own music.
"The Ocean" is a haunting number about a woman who was imprisoned by "Domestic chores and children / The darkness of winter" and eventually "in spirit drifted to the ocean," while "Age Old Blues" seems to hint at nostalgia. Still the most captivating moment, however, is Diane moaning, "Take us back oh take us back" with transcendent emotion on key track "Take Us Back." She juxtaposes this simple plea with tales of a "friend who lives out by the river's mouth / He knows the fiddle's cry is an old sound" and "the tops of crags and cliffs, the air is thin" to craft what is perhaps the most fascinating tune on the record.
While the folk revival has produced quite a few solid albums recently, To Be Still is something that only comes around once in a while. Good thing, then, that it's built to last. Alela Diane looks to assume a leadership role in the folk scene with this one, and it doesn't look like she intends to resign any time soon.