Enigmatic Gothic Americana from Emily Jane White
It’s time to plunge back into the abyss today with Emily Jane White’s third album, Ode to Sentience, which is out June 12 in the US on Antenna Farm Records after a Japanese release last year. Sadness and despair pervade White’s angst-ridden Nashville gothic and classical-rock anthems. She’s got a great band, with layers of acousic and electric guitars, piano and a string section, that proves just as powerful on the art-rock numbers as on the country and folk-rock songs. She sings in a whispery voice that often takes on a lilt at the end of a phrase, with echoes of Britfolk chanteuses like Linda Thompson. As a songwriter, White is sort of a cross between Eilen Jewell and Marissa Nadler, but more of a traditionalist: where Nadler goes for minimal and sepulchral, White goes for grand guignol. She’s on tour this month, with a stop at Glasslands on June 20 on a good doublebill with Alana Amram & the Rough Gems opening at around 9:30.
The album’s opening track, Oh Katherine, sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins as a brisk, fingerpicked acoustic Britfolk shuffle; it winds out in a lush arrangement with washes of electric guitar, cello and swooshy cymbals. “I do not bat an eye, my life has gone awry, and I do not leave alive,” White intones matter-of-factly, letting the song’s anguished regret speak for itself. Likewise, the equally catchy Nashville gothic ballad The Cliff bitterly chronicles a relationship gone to hell, building from a terse mix of acoustic and reverb guitars and pedal steel to a big noir guitar interlude midway through. The most minimal track here is The Preacher, with its tersely eerie Syd Barrett guitar and bitter, cynical lyric; the folkiest one is Black Silk, one of the more enigmatic numbers here. “Father, he’s got me up against the wall, fading into a life I don’t want,” White explains – sort of. What happened to this girl? And of all the mini-mystery stories here, the most inscrutable one is The Law, building from a swaying backbeat country song with driving, percussive piano that suddenly ends cold and unresolved.
The minor-key waltz The Black Oak offers a bleak, Richard Thompson-esque look at a doomed relationship that White’s tormented narrator can’t bring herself to break off, while the elegaic I Lay to Rest (California) evokes this era’s greatest art-rockers, Botanica, from its snarling, macabre guitar intro, to its ornate, Chopinesque piano interlude. Clipped Wings, with its ominous major/minor changes, wouldn’t be out of place in the Arthur Lee songbook: a killer’s suicide note, it has a chilling authenticity. “Can I cut you out of the frame? Can I throw the remnants in the lake?” the murderess asks her dead paramour. The High Romantic Chopin-rock reaches a peak with Requiem Waltz: “Now I know what pain can do,” White laments as the big, anguished, fullblown orchestrated crescendo reaches a peak with soaring, aching violin. White goes back to country for the album’s final track, Broken Words, an understatedly bitter kiss-off song.
For fans of melancholy music, this album is a treat. One complaint, however: whenever she gets to the punchline, White always brings her vocals down a notch. The first couple of times this happens, it enhances the mystery; then it becomes annoying, then downright maddening. You will find yourself reaching reflexively for the rewind button, often more than once in the same song. Bringing the vocals up in the mix would have helped immeasurably. Obviously, if White’s stories weren’t so compelling, this wouldn’t be an issue: it’s a good thing that the music stands up to repeated listening, because trying to figure out just what’s happening here will take awhile.