Words: EMA @ Echoplex, October 13, 2011
That I didn’t know much about her or previous band, Gowns, an art rock/folk/lo-fi project with two ex-Mae Shi men, highly regarded by many, in particular for their live show, only enhanced the genuine surprise of Erika M. Anderson’s (a.k.a. EMA) record, Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions), one of those increasingly rare occasions of coming into something completely fresh, no early expectations formed, and perhaps all the more reason for it to completely blow me away on first listen, on a recent random Spotify encounter.
These songs have a lot going on—guitars, strummed acoustic grunge and electric powerchords, ambient rumbles and bleeps and textures, dense layers of noise as well as pindrop silence, a bit of piano and violin for good measure, stitched together with solid songwriting and arrangements, all done up with some fairly polished production. Her voice is present right up top in the mix, often in self-harmonizing layers and at times artfully fucked with and painfully naked. Genuine sparks of genius flecked throughout this record. Of course, doing the requisite Googling after the fact finds me late to the party; a Pitchfork 8.5 already in her backpocket months ago; raves from the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin, if those rags still mean anything. So the question then, now, as ever, becomes whether the record translates to the stage and at the Echoplex last Thursday, the answer was an emphatic yes.
With a four-piece band that includes primary partner in EMA, Leif Schakelford, a soundsmith who co-produced the record and just happens to build effects pedals on the side, on violin and sample keys; Nicky Mao on electric guitar and a bit of welcome ebow noise and violin; and her kid sister Nicole holding it down on drums, EMA is compelling act, even under the mediocre sound and lights of the Echoplex stage. Songs that on record are dense and intricate, get more than serviceable treatment live with just these four pieces, a testament to the sturdiness of the writing itself. They have a solid sense of live dynamics and aren’t afraid to get too loud or too quiet. There are arty flourishes, such as Leif’s looping violin intro to the set, unexpected moments, like the rap rhyme of “California” done live over violins and sampled beats, and then just some plain old Nirvana-esque power pop moments.
As a performer, she’s definitely a personality, alternately earnest and jokey between songs and cuts a fairly striking (and marketable) image with au currant 80ish ghetto fabulous style and 6 feet tall with a moptop of blonde locks. My only minor quibble is the mid-set cover of “Add It Up” which while arranged creatively and delivered with a nice bit of fire, I just can’t buy that particular lyric coming out of her mouth.
On just the strength of her debut LP and live show, you already have to slot EMA right alongside the current class of eclectic younger acts, female or otherwise, working mostly solo under project names—Tune-Yards, St. Vincent, Glasser, Dearhunter, that whole 4AD gang—but with far more potential for mass appeal than any of those others. All in all, the record might be one hit single away from breaking her out wider audience immediately, slow burn word of mouth among the indie tastemakers should keep the EMA name out there until the next record. And that next one is going to be big.
EMA photo by Sung. Full gallery here.