For a second there, I thought it might be difficult for Alela Diane to top her standout performance on the Headless Heroes' recent covers concept album, The Silence Of Love. But the singer/songwriter proves to be at her best when singing her own earthy tunes inspired by the trees and tumult of life in Nevada City. [rssbreak] Her impressive 2006 debut, The Pirate's Gospel, and 2007's stripped-down Songs Whistled Through White Teeth 10-inch EP were just the warm-up for the bewitching display of To Be Still, which benefits from fuller instrumental backing without sacrificing any of the melancholic mystery that made her early work so captivating.
Home again, eventually. There's a powerful weariness to 25-year-old Alela Diane's voice as it dips and curls its way through her second album, woozy pedal steel glinting and shimmering all about her, hollow-hooved percussion trailing in her wake. Like The Pirate's Gospel, her cruelly unheralded 2006 debut, To Be Still is a staggering meditation on the idea of home in its many forms, and shares its predecessor's knowing heart—young, but already familiar with the tugging weights of time, family and love.
Alela Diane's songs are campfire pipe dreams filled with picket fences, desert sands and paths leading back to you. If you're a fan of Joni Mitchell, then this Californian folkie will also appeal. The banjos and root-tootin' bass might seem overly reverential but there's something comforting in her landscapes of small-town America. .
Alela Diane Menig dedicates her second album to "the pines, the river and the ocean deep", all of which played a part in making this songwriter from rural northern California the moving artist she is. Her debut, The Pirate's Gospel - voted best album of 2007 by the Rough Trade chain - introduced her world of isolated hamlets and forests at dusk, and To Be Still expands on it with the vivid addition of mandolin, cello and banjo. Nearly every song is informed by nature: from the snow that creates "such a stillness, calm as the owl glides" on White As Diamonds to the woodland copse where "wind blows the tiny green helicopter seeds" in The Alder Trees.
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.
Alela Diane might sound at first like a lot of female singer-songwriters you’ve heard. She gently plays an acoustic guitar behind her lilting voice. And, if you happened to hear To Be Still in the background at someone’s apartment, or half-hear it over the faint sound system at a small restaurant, you might even think you’ve heard it before. But To Be Still will draw you in if you let it, if you follow the title’s suggestion and just sit and listen.
Joni Mitchell's very much alive in Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter Alela Diane and her gentle folk songs about the wonders of nature and men with strong hands and California fields that are as titillating as those of longtime friend Joanna Newsom. Unlike Newsom, she lets her lyrics wander rather than indulging in breathless storytelling. Her sophomore LP fills out with a proper band and some inspired duets, such as the generation-spanning tale "Age Old Blue" with eccentric folkie Michael Hurley.