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Past Life Martyred Saints John Doran , May 11th, 2011 09:53

It must be a common enough feeling to go through your teenage years in a small town, yearning to escape the petty-mindedness, violence and boredom, just to hit the big city in your twenties and discover that you don't fit in there either. To discover the streets are paved with dog shit not gold. "Fuck California", sings Erika M Anderson balefully on this quietly astounding debut album, in a dedication to her adoptive West Coast home, "you made me boring." The opening track of Past Life Martyred Saints ('California') pinpoints what EMA - who was born and bred in South Dakota - is really brilliant at; writing songs capturing life's big shifts, tapping all the unruly emotions dredged up for all they are worth. A realisation that comes too late in life to be of any use, is twice as bittersweet - it is palpable how much EMA (or perhaps the voice she's giving life to) is undergoing some kind of negative epiphany during this song. She wryly takes on the role of Betty from David Lynch's Mullholland Drive: "Now you've corrupted me with your sexuality / Tried to tell me love was free / I said, 'Them? Maybe you, you, you, you and me..." Sonically, she creates nostalgia for something gone by conjuring up the small town vibe of girl group pop but brutally smashed apart into ragged lo-fi, shoegaze lumps of guitar feedback.

The album is full of epiphanies. The first single and album opener 'The Grey Ship', is ostensibly about death – the vessels of the title being Viking longships that carry the dead out of this life into the next in Norse mythology. Death, when it arrives in the song, does so in the form of a sumptuous, liquid and immersive bass drop, as she lists all the people she meets on the other side. What is being mourned here, however, is not her own transient life but her lack of connection to her family's past. She is surprised to see that the deathly transport sent for her did not come from further North (her stock are the Scandinavians settled in the Mid West) before concluding mournfully: "Great grandmother lived on the prairie / Nothing, and nothing and nothing and nothing / I've got the same feeling inside of me / Nothing and nothing and nothing and nothing."

As part of Gowns, Anderson proved that she could wrench painful emotion out of ragged lo-fi folk guitar mishandling. And while we're never that far away from the sound of sweaty fingers being scraped roughly along guitar strings, this is a much more interesting proposition, with her playing on 'Breakfast' owing a debt to Robert Fripp and the tone of 'Anteroom' being more early Throwing Muses than Bardo Pond. And while it's right to flag up the lo-fi, plug-and-play-at-5am nature of these songs, that's to ignore the droning antique synths, the intricately harmonised vocals and lovesick strings. In fact, the influence of her other band, Amps For Christ, is much more apparent in some ways with the Celtic folk overtones of 'Coda'. No doubt Past Life Martyred Saints will see EMA get compared to various female performers but she's a stone cold original as far as I can tell and as such deserves better. Packed with epiphanies it may be, but this album invites one more: that of the listener discovering it.