As a member of noise-folk duo Gowns, Erika M. Anderson wrote lyrics that teemed with small-town imagery. The tortured sounds on the group’s 2007 album Red State seem to have sprung, largely, from frustrations with provincial life in the Midwest. Anderson has now found a new home, albeit one with problems of its own. In a song named after her new state, she delivers a frenzied, stream-of-consciousness utterance over a spacious soundscape of droning, mutating synths and imposing guitars. While her chaotic meander defies interpretation, she demands attention through several provocative lines, beginning with the opening charge, “Fuck California, you made me boring.”
Sunny, glamorous California life might lull an artist into complacency. On the other hand, small town experiences, although they seem to have been traumatic for Anderson, clearly inspired her music. The implicit notion is that one’s merit often stems from one’s imperfections. This acknowledgment seems to have been kept in mind throughout the recording of Past Life Martyred Saints. Sounds that would be traditionally considered flaws are embraced and exploited. For instance, on most songs, one can hear Anderson gasp for breath between her words. The resulting sound is intimate, dramatic, and potent. There is a palpable preoccupation with the authenticity of emotional expression. At moments, this compromises the overall sound, such as in “Anteroom,” when the vocals seem objectionably stark. On the other hand, “Marked” owes much of its poignant weight to the bold inclusion of strident vocals. Anderson’s voice is almost unbearably hoarse and strained, enabling the listener to feel her fragility and desperation, as she sings, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark.” Meanwhile, each time her fingers move between frets, the sliding noise is not obscured, but amplified, so as to leave a symbolic mark on the recording.
“Coda,” finds Anderson accompanying a male voice in some type of deranged, redneck, blues sing-a-long. The man’s vocal is rough, strained, and subdued; Anderson’s is gentle, precise, and crisp. The polish of the latter delivery contrasts with the crudeness of the melody. Anderson sounds out of place, seemingly disoriented by her geographical displacement. She inhabits an obscure, unstable space somewhere between a small Midwest town and California. On one side are folk, blues, and rock and roll. On the other side are electronics and sound art. As Anderson attempts to ground herself, she employs elements from the musical styles that flank her. The result is the sound of EMA.
Anderson’s brand of noise rock boasts a blues sensibility and a folk aesthetic, but relies greatly on ambience, texture, and electronic manipulation. The former Gowns member preserves her previous group’s sound palette, but employs its elements to a heightened effect, on her remarkably promising solo debut. With fresh, sonically adventurous juxtapositions, and bold, honest lyrics, she engages the listener in an intense, emotional journey. There are paroxysms of punk rock angst in “Milkman” and “Butterfly Knife,” which give way to fractured lullabies in the gorgeous “Breakfast.” Along the way, infectious hooks, piercing tones, and hypnotic groups abound. From epic opener “The Grey Ship,” to the equally epic closing track “Red Star,” Past Life Martyred Saints is an album that captivates, provokes, and pleases.