So far 2011 has been a year full of surprises, musically speaking. Three of my favorite records released up to this point, Yuck's Yuck, Mazes' A Thousand Heys and now Erika "EMA" Anderson's Past Life Martyred Saints, are debuts released by notably young artists. While the Yuck record is maybe my current favorite of the three, EMA's nine song Saints is the by-far most interesting, mixing elements of electro-punk, art-rock, pop and neo-psychedelia in a cold, dark and grimy manner that brings to mind the oft-noisy early work of artists like Sonic Youth, Cat Power, PJ Harvey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Four years ago EMA, then a member of the now-defunct Gowns, recorded a very good record called Red State that unfortunately passed by mostly unknown, the band breaking up before they could release a second album. Prior to Gowns a very young Anderson was a guitarist for cult favorites Amps For Christ - an artistic experience, we'd bet, that played a big part in EMA's current sound. Listening back to the uber-artsy records of her salad days now, it's almost hard to believe that EMA didn't "go solo" earlier. This because, while those records are all worth checking out, it's Saints that stands above the rest, feeling like an instant underground classic.
Clocking in at 37 minutes, Saints displays more diversity than your average art-rock record, offering different versions of the often emotional artist on each song. On "Butterfly Knife," for example, EMA is both nostalgic and angst-y, mixing howls and sugar-sweet vocals over feedback and distortion in a way that would make PJ Harvey shiver. Instant standout "Milkman," a dark and dance-y tune covered in a cloak of noise, displays EMA's pop sensibilities, almost feeling like an underground answer to a weirdo pop-smith like Lady Gaga (forgive me).
The eight main tracks from the record, to varying degrees, all feel like mini-epics that could've easily been issued as stand alone 7" singles. "California," the track that has been getting the most attention thus far, is a bit of a mind-bender, offering a big and sprawling sound that was, if you listen closely, clearly played and produced in a minimalist fashion. Here EMA speaks more than she sings, offering a solid structure to an arrangement comprised more of sounds than melody. "Coda," perhaps the record's most unlikely track, is an a cappella mini-song that offers a breather before one of Saints' key tracks, "Marked," kicks in. Reminding instantly of "Our Time," the closing cut from the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP (a record winked at by Life's cover design), "Marked" slowly builds over a prog-y arrangement of chugging noise, tin-can percussion and hypnotic organ, never quite exploding.
The overall listening experience reminds as much of the implied grandness of bands like The Fall and The Royal Trux as it does more obvious artists like Harvey and the Yeahs. And as easily as I'd could liken the record to classic-era Sonic Youth albums like Dirty and Goo, it just doesn't seem right. Past Life Martyred Saints, thanks to EMA's seemingly endless number of ideas (as well as her diversity and vocal ability), pushes past both its influences and the current crop of noisy girl bands (Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls and Best Coast) with ease, standing as a noisy - and wholly original - masterpiece full of heart and style.
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