EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

Hype is a bitch. For some time I found myself actively resisting the EMA album – maybe it was the overly stylized photos of Erika M. Anderson, her eyes obscured behind bleached blonde hair, the bling screaming her initials. Even the positive press notices failed to convey a sense of the music that piqued my interest – I suppose Anderson is a singer-songwriter in the most literal sense of the term, but does that really tell us anything? Then I finally listened.

Let’s try this: Picture Kim Gordon covering the first two landmark PJ Harvey albums. Past Life Martyred Saints packs that kind of wallop without ever kicking up much dust. South Dakota native Anderson pulled up stakes for California and cut her teeth in the duo Gowns, singing quasi-autobiographical songs about dead-end small town teens on albums like Red State that pursued a vision reasonably similar to her solo work but emphasized the druggy ennui with minimal attention to hooks.

Apparently life in the Golden State has done little to cheer Anderson, or to mellow her out. On “California” she laments the homies she left behind, the past life martyred saints of the album’s title. “Fuck California, you made me boring,” she dryly rails, as her band builds to a searing White Light White Heat-style violin and organ drone.

EMA uses the blues as a foundation, but in the same sense as PJ Harvey before she laid those influences bare on To Bring You My Love – heck, Anderson’s already done a 17-minute re-imagining of Robert Johnson as a b-side. On the album’s comparatively extroverted finale “Red Star” she even resembles another new school blues powderkeg Erika – the Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom – but without the showy barroom excesses. Anderson’s not afraid to rock out – witness the unbridled sexuality of “Milkman” or the swagger of non-LP single “Soul on Fire” – but she’s equally effective letting her raw, sparsely accompanied plainspoken intensity speak volumes.

Here’s hoping Erika Anderson is one hell of an actress, because if Past Life Martyred Saints truly reflects her worldview, her prospects for longevity aren’t great. I hate to play the “her pain is our gain” card, but EMA has channeled those demons into a damned powerful album.

Past Life Martyred Saints
[Souterrain Transmissions]