When I first heard Alela Diane’s voice in a Daytrotter Session from 2007, I was struck by the mixture of the exotic and the familiar in her voice. She could combine old-fashioned full-throated country folk singing with strange breathy filigrees of the kind that Joanna Newsom has made famous. (Oh, and throw in just a hint — just a hint — of Nico.) Alela Diane’s To Be Still finds her working out the full range of her voice. At the same time, she has developed a bigger instrumental sound in comparison with her 2006 debut, The Pirate’s Gospel. Rather than the folksinger-with-her-guitar model, Alela Diane (those are both first names, by the way) has concocted a mixture of slide guitar, percussion, and vocal harmonies to give the songs greater depth than her voice alone can give them.
But what a voice it is. And its flexibility is on display in the album: From the full-bodied nasal call in “The Ocean,” to the light folksinger warble in “Age Old Blues,” to the country-lead in “Dry Grass and Shadows,” to the Newsom-y playfulness of “Every Path,” she adapts herself to the demands of each song. Still, though, every song is a hybrid that mixes all these types. She plays her bird-like high register against the low male vocals (always a sweet mixture to me) in “Age Old Blues.” And in “Every Path” she mixes everything up: registers, harmonies and singing-style. Its strange little post-chorus part has two Newsom songwriting trademarks: quickly falling melodies and wide, slightly off-kilter harmonies. The chorus (“Every path/ has led me back to you”), however, not only contains a very un-Newsom-like lyric but also is sung in a particularly straight-ahead and soaring (and damn catchy) way.
The instrumentation, which Alela Diane was “determined to make work,” remains rustic and mostly acoustic throughout: finger-picked guitar, simple percussion, violin, mandolin and a slide guitar here and there. Judicially used, the extra noise-makers never seem to disrupt or seem alien to the songs, though two of my favorites, “The Ocean” and “White As Diamonds,” show how there seem to be two ways of incorporating the instruments into the already given structures. In “White as Diamonds,” the violin and cello — and then the full band — play against the singer’s voice in a way that clearly builds on top of her guitar work. This makes the instruments seem more ornamental, less necessary to the song. In “The Ocean,” she builds the song from a heavy tom beat (vaguely reminiscent of Hank Williams’ “Indian” song “Kaw-Liga”). At first it’s just her voice and the drum, then she adds a simple guitar figure, then the song expands in the chorus as high harmonies and a mandolin enter. Here everything comes together, the song seems like an organic whole.
The poetry on To Be Still is sometimes a bit too delicate for my taste, but the songs show off much more than words alone. They display a quirky vocal talent and songwriting skill. All this while fulfilling our collective desire for rustic meditative intensity.