Ah, what a difference a day makes, or two years in this instance. In 2005, Emily White quietly crept onto the indie music scene with Every Pulse, a self-produced eight-song effort. Raw but interesting, it held both the positives and negatives of that sometimes raging, sometimes sputtering music culture, glued together by the digital revolution and an increasingly insular major label music industry model. A friend heard it and described White as just-another-white-girl-with-guitar. If I had a hat, I'd make him eat it because the release of 12 Ways To Live has folded those words into a mess of crow, upon which he admits he is at this very moment feasting. Hat would be the ideal side dish.
12 Ways To Live is such a jump ahead from Every Pulse that comparisons are not even in order, the earlier work the germ, the new work a full-on viral infection. In a word, our little girl is growing up, Momma.
While it may seem dismissive to call the first two tracks of 12 Ways warmups, in retrospect (meaning after numerous listens) they seem just that. Good songs presented very well indeed, Believe In Me and Mad Intuition are just that: songs. On another album they would stand out, but leading into Railroad, they fade before a succession of tracks baring a more approachable Emily White, a flawed and human Emily White writing to feel and, on occasion, to heal. The lazy, slow pace of Railroad is lifted by sparse chords and "squeakies", eerie feedback-style effects akin to softened brakes of a slow moving train, and amazingly effective. A folk love song, it raises the bar on every level. A bluesy Bayou kicks it up four or five notches, a driving acoustic rocker with a great chorus inspired by and borrowed from an old traditional gospel song. The tinny and dissonant sound of the guitars are ideally matched to the odd vocal tracks courtesy of the various Ms. Whites. With minor chords and a lighter feel but dismal subject matter, we follow her to 7th & A for an anxious meeting with her ex. Without the lyrics, it could be an almost pleasant song, and perhaps that is the key. There is a dissonance, sometimes, even in her lyrics.
We are left to decide whether Every Pulse (the song) was written after White's earlier 8-song release or maybe written for it and just not included. While it worked as the title of the EP, one gets the feeling that perhaps even if the song was ready at that time, she wasn't. To my ears, it is as good as anything she's written or performed, having an inbred, gripping intensity. Quiet, plodding, in three-four time, it glides over rhythms created by wine glass, vent and "found objects". It is metronome effect, a 3 AM clock, with odd sounds of those found objects thrown in for good measure. Dual vibraphones provide melodious background in single strokes, always on the downbeat, striking-two-three, striking-two-three as White, in a perfect imperfect voice, sings a love song for one not there. Honest love and aching loneliness equals frailty and for a few moments, you are alone with her, almost afraid to breathe. Those few moments, and I say this seriously, are ready for the stage. Really good dramatic love songs are few and far between, especially on the stage, and this is really good. I realize this is little to go on, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a musical theater work in White's future.
Another ready for the stage number, Your Fire, involves an imaginary meeting over coffee with an ex and his fiancee. With jazz chords and soundtrack piano, she bemoans losing love and yet… Two years ago, she might have completed the picture. Today, she leaves it up to you. God knows what goes on in Georgia. Of course, clandestine meetings in seedy Atlanta hotels make for dark songs, but the guitar work is intriguing and puts to rest any argument about White not carrying her weight instrumentally. Back to the bottom with Omaha, a desperate and moving cry for love and home. We all know that sometimes sparse production can add to a song's worth and it makes Good Enough Reason plenty good enough, White playing straight ahead economical electric guitar beneath very basic voice. This being an election year, White tosses Election Year into the ring with some obvious truths, all in good fun, of course. This would have played well during the "hootenanny" years, acoustic guitar and voice all that is needed other than protest-era lyrics. Secret Song" is reminiscent of late sixties and early seventies folk pop, White's voice recorded on two tracks and overlaid on quiet folk finger-picking with light synthesizer. Maybe not folk pop as much as folk psych. Regardless, a perfect ending, quiet, and you're done.
While this album is not for everyone, and no album is, it is a reflection of a quickly maturing artist. She has moved from the simple task of putting lyrics to music to searching for the struggles within. More importantly, she has found a way to make those struggles universal and yet personal, and that is no mean task.
It is said that in the fantasy world of music, when you do it right, you get your wings. If that is true, Emily, you got your wings. And then some.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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