Trippy Downtempo Atmospherics from Emily Wells
It isn’t every day that someone popular enough to get a Bowery Ballroom gig appears on this page. Then again, not everything that’s popular is stupid. Emily Wells is a prime example. She’s got a new album out, simply titled Mama; her shtick is that she creates intricately trippy, swirling atmospheric pop all by herself on violin, using multiple loops and a million digital effects. Goldfrapp is the obvious comparison, although Wells downplays the vocals here: lyrics and voice take a backseat to the atmospherics. Where Alison Goldfrapp plays a Bond Girl, Wells wears a few faces here, sometimes a come-hither hip-hop vixen, sometimes a country chanteuse, sometimes a goth girl. Whichever direction she goes in, she typically doesn’t go over the top. In most cases, songs based on loops tend to be simple and hypnotic, which makes sense considering that the simpler the underlying riffs or changes are, the less complicated it is to add additional sonic layers on top as they come around again and again – especially if you’re playing them live as Wells does in concert. So there aren’t many surprises here tunewise, in the beginning at least: simple cake, artsy icing. Many of the songs segue into each other here, enhancing the psychedelic feel.
The opening track, Piece of It has Wells’ swaying, surreal muted staccato plucking contrasting with echoey, almost dubwise sustained lines. It gets dreamier and dreamier as the layers of echoey vocals and pinging, high bell-like tones make their way in. Dirty Sneakers and Underwear has shuffling drums and echoey atmospherics which conceal what’s essentially a hip-hop/”R&B” song. It gets creepier and more gothic as it goes along, leaving the pop vibe behind. Sepulchral accordion-like tones and swirly funeral organ pervade Passenger, a trip-hop number, followed by Mama’s Gonna Give You Love, the simplest and most direct track here with its minor-key soul/gospel groove.
Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House is just plain weird, a trip-hop country song with vocal harmonies via a pitch pedal and eventually some rippling banjo – does she play that? Let Your Guard Down goes for a Billie Holiday vocal, the music reaching for a lush late 60s/early 70s orchestrated soul atmosphere that picks up with genuine majesty as the drums rumble and crash. Fire Song has an only slightly restrained ornateness, like something off the live, orchestrated Portishead album: it’s the most overtly classical piece of music here. The last three tracks are a woozy, dubwise trip-hop tune with blippy horn-like patches flitting through the mix; a trip-hop take on delta blues (that actually works!!); and an echoey stab at Nashville gothic.
Who is the audience for this? People who like to end the day with a blunt; fans of dub and trip-hop; and probably because of marketing, trendoids. That seems to be the audience she’s been targeted to, and that’s too bad, because it would be sad if she ended up ghettoized with the rest of the wannabes in the Pitchfork crowd.