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Alela Diane
To Be Still Shain Shapiro , February 18th, 2009 04:21

There is a certain stillness, call it serenity even, that those writing strictly about the outdoors strive for. In America, the literary pioneer was Thoreau: writing from his cabin next to a silent pond, pastoral bliss oozes from his words. Whitman too. Explicating nature through rose-coloured glasses focuses on the beauty that surrounds us often in an idealized form that ignores the fleeting fragility of it all. This theme, passed down from poet to songwriter, engulfed Laurel Canyon based singer/songwriters in the 70s as the relationship between admiring nature and nurturing it as a muse influenced a generation. But tastes change like the seasons, and songwriting toughened up, and besides, pining over nature is tougher than pining over love. In such context, Alela Diane Menig is anachronistic. To Be Still, her sophomore set of soft-spoken folk might not be unique, but Diane's intention here is not to discover originality. Instead, this set honours the honour roll, crafting a collection of approving nods to a style she obviously idolizes too much to alter.

There are no surprises here. To Be Still is, in essence, consistent eddies around a single theme. But the respect given to her craft shimmers through, from choice of collaborators, to how she accentuates each rustic vocal. So featured here are her dad, Pete Grant (the man who taught Jerry Garcia pedal steel) and Kate Wolf's guitarist Nina Gerber; while sideman Tim Menig's home studio was used for the recording.

Diane shows each melody the respect it deserves, as if she is wailing through a tribute album to Laurel Canyon's folk scene. 'Dry Grass and Shadows' sounds road-tested for a Workingman's Dead b-side, while 'My Brambles', punctured through with cello and tambourine, recalls the darker side of Dory Previn at the height of her sexual conquests. As such, it's the accoutrements that elevate these exercises. Unlike Diane's self-released debut, The Pirate's Gospel (to all intents and purposes a solo record), To Be Still abounds with accents and showcases a more refined production. 'The Ocean' beams with strong backing vocals, while 'Tatted Lace' invites ethereal accompaniment, adding more dimension through plucked guitars and choral tones.

But as the story goes, Diane sticks to singing about nature, from the winds enrapturing the hills around California to the hundred year-old trees standing outside her house in Nevada City. And like a spring breeze, it swoons quickly and then departs, leaving little memory behind. Diane's dedication to her craft is inspiring, and while those came before might have sung these songs better, she perfectly captures some of the strength of the history she taps into.