I fell for Alela Diane a few years ago after listening to her perform her tune “The Rifle” on the Daytrotter Sessions. It was March 15, 2007. The recording sounds off the cuff, unrehearsed and effortless. The Daytrotter folk talk about not having the time to set up and sound check proper. It was all just done. Diane, alone with her acoustic guitar, gently picking over the strings, singing plain and mournful about things that implied Walker Evans black-and-whites and impending violence. I listened to “The Rifle” over and over—-far more than the anything on her Pirate’s Gospel LP. The song’s narrative riveted me because of what she left unsaid:
“I’ve been knocking on that door in my sleep….And papa get the rifle from its place above the french doors/they’re coming from the woods…And brother I’m so sorry that you watched the paintings burn.”
The song wasn’t modern. At the time, her voice had to compete with Devendra Banhart, her childhood friend Joanna Newsom, and countless bearded people. Except she didn’t write like those freak folkies. “The Rifle” could have been an A-side picked up by Harry Smith or Joe Bussard. Anyway, I played the song like it was timeless, putting it on mixes, walking around with it, riding the bus with it. I don’t think I could ever let the song go.
Now Diane has overwhelmed me with a sparkling new album called To Be Still. Here, the arrangements are cleaner and fuller. “Age Old Blues” is a dusty duet with Michael Hurley about blue eyes hardened by war. On another she asks: “Have you been kicking bones on the desert sand?” And on still another she pleads: “Meet me where the snow melts” and sings about braiding hair and last year’s antlers marking the trail. And muted voices, Alder Trees, helicopters spreading seeds, dirt ditch paths, glass bottles, an old romance, straight white teeth, death, and back roads. [A November 24, 2008 entry from her blog: “Another hotel. Another city. We ate some proper food tonight here in Bordeaux. It was cold to the bones today, but the skies were clear & we saw a rainbow.”]
The album is more country, pedal-steel notes slip over the songs like rain drops. Violins whine. Diane sings big. People think Diane sounds like Sandy Denny. But fuck it. That’s just lazy. At least she doesn’t sound like Cat Power.
It will take you years to figure it all out. Diane opens tonight for Blitzen Trapper at the Black Cat. It’s sold out but maybe with the snow there will be some no-shows.