Emily Wells’ Other Mama
If you’re a big fan of older bands, you’ve probably got your hands on a few of their demos. If you’re too young to remember the major label era, a demo was a rough, usually acoustic version of a song recorded on the cheap for the sake of producers and label people, typically to help familiarize studio personnel in preparation for the final studio version. Some of the songs on violinist Emily Wells’ new album Mama (The Acoustic Recordings), which reprise the tracks on her 2012 album by the same name, sound like demos; others play up Wells’ fondness for low-key Americana, by contrast to the studio album’s high-tech, hip hop-tinged production. Wells is playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Thursday, July 25 at around 7 on a fantastic bill opening for My Brightest Diamond and then the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating 40 years in business with a new cellist and a new Chernobyl-themed collaboration with haunting Carpathian folk chanteuse Mariana Sadovska.
Passenger, the opening track, is sparse and skeletal but builds to a catchy singalong chorus that ends up being hard to resist. LIke several of the songs here, it doesn’t miss the trip-hop production it eventually would be saddled with in the studio: more than anything, this album reveals Wells to be a lot more compelling as whispery Americana songstress than white Missy Elliott.
Darlin reminds of Linda Draper’s recent adventures in Americana, albeit a lot more quietly. Its gentle acoustic guitar and vocals drenched in reverb like pretty much everything here (what little violin there is on this album is usually sparsely plucked pizzicato), Los Angeles sounds like a wispier Cat Power. Having heard the polished studio version of No Good, it’s easy to see how it could go in a woozy trip-hop direction – but the stripped-down version is better, showing its 1950s doo-wop roots.
Likewise, Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House, with its subdued folkie unease. Interestingly, the wispy Xanax blues version of Mama’s Gonna Give You Love doesn’t offer any hint of the soul groove the studio version launches into. The same with Let Your Guard Down and its distant, keening slide guitar: though the lush, early-70s soul production of the studio version is pretty spot-on, this is a lot more intense, Wells doing more with less.
The most classically-influenced song on Mama is Fire Song: here, it’s a dusky, dreamy folk-pop ballad. The acoustic version of Dirty Sneakers, the most blatantly commercial Missy Elliott-ish cut on that album, is pretty hilarious, almost a country parody of what it turned out to be. And on album, Piece of It has a surreal dubwise atmosphere, which actually makes sense considering the acoustic Cocteau Twins dreaminess of this take.
Some people will hear Wells’ vocals and will think, oh god, another languid Prozacked-out Lana Del Rey wannabe, but a closer listen will dispel that notion. Where Mama was a smoke session of overdubs and thumpy electronics, this an album of nocturnes, something to send you drifting away to somewhere unknown as the sun goes over the horizon.