Life in a Red State = Life at the End of the World
When Erika M. Anderson is at the peak of her powers —guitar lashing in bursts of noise, voice multi-tracked to sound like whispered shards, uneasy ambience conveyed by drone, atmosphere growing so grand to swallow a listener— her music plays like a soundtrack to the end of the world. Not just apocalyptically grand, but eerie, desolate, sad; marking not so much a cataclysm, but the end of something. One woman staring into the abyss.
Yet, whilst the power of the sounds she wields can have terrifying, powerful, painful qualities, Anderson's songs aren't written on the same colossal scale. They're often intimate and insular, with the strange sonic qualities —noise, ambience, done— luring a listener in.
Anderson's vicious voice and gnarled guitar previously shined on Red State, the one and only LP for her previous project, Gowns. The record was a work brutal, powerful, haunting, and ugly; a collection of character-sketches and tone-poems that amounted to a singular suite of songs ruminating on life growing up in a red state; in that case, Anderson's old home of South Dakota.
Now based in the Bay Area, Anderson has the perspective and the distance to view her childhood as a formative experience, but also as something particular to a place. And those thoughts come up again across her debut album as EMA —her first solo record, really— Past Life Martyred Saints.
Past Life Martyred Saints takes its title from Anderson's ex-boyfriend's brother, who believed he was a martyred saint in a past life. And its songs summon, at times, summon an adolescent milieu of lost and confused kids; not least of all in "Butterfly Knife," a tale of self-cutting that begins with this menacing omen: "you were a Goth in high-school."
Even if EMA wields sounds that convey imminent apocalypse, they're anything but self-serious; "California" riffs on both Joni Mitchell and "Camptown Races," and the a cappella "Coda" finds Anderson and ex-Gowns-mate Ezra Buchla caterwauling "I looked on the computer and it was just an emptiness that made me want to throw up on the spot."
It's not so much that Past Life Martyred Saints balances light and dark, but allows them to be inextricably linked; safe in the knowledge that f**ked-up times can have funny moments in them, or can become funny in memory. The a gallows humor that flowers in even the LP's bleakest tunes seems real and true and convincingly personal; comedy a coping mechanism for red state small-town childhoods and apocalypses both.
Record Label: Souterrain Transmissions
Release Date: May 10, 2011