I first heard Alela Diane on her Daytrotter session in May of 2007. Daytrotter has been responsible for introducing me to dozens of incredible up-and-coming bands, and some rare or unreleased songs by plenty of well-known songwriters as well (Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, David Bazan, Will Johnson, etc.), but Diane was one of the more remarkable up-and-comers, so much so that I emailed her to try to help her organize a show in Baltimore during her Fall East Coast tour. Unfortunately, that fell through, but I've been replaying her first album The Pirate's Gospel pretty regularly since—an album of gentle acoustic guitar and vocals, with occasional soft banjo backing; an album more about Diane's songwriting and her beautiful cowgirlish Karen Dalton-like voice. It's not a great album, but it showed a hell of a lot of promise—promise that Diane has fully realized with her follow-up, To Be Still, out Feb. 17 on Rough Trade.
Diane has received many unfair comparisons to freak folkster Joanne Newsom, partly because of their shared hometowns of Nevada City, California. Hartley Goldstein at Other Music went so far as to claim, after dropping Diane into the freak-folk bin, that "if anything were actually possible to hinder Alela Diane's stunningly beautiful debut, The Pirate's Gospel, it's the timing. Had Gospel come out three years ago, Alela would be as big as Ms. Newsom." I have a certain quirky sentimental attachment to Newsom's 2004 debut, The Milk Eyed Mender, but that Diane and Newsom have any kind of connection past Nevada City, well, that I just don't understand. Diane could have been straight out of the 60s folk revival on The Pirate's Gospel. As Diane said in her press release, To Be Still was mostly a family affair, recorded with her father and family friends. "These songs are crafted of love and lore… Some were inspired by stories passed on by my mother and grandmothers, while others came from lilting days here and there."
I mention the comparisons if only to juxtapose Newsom's 2006 follow-up Ys (the most undeservedly praised album I can't remember in recent years) with To Be Still. Both follow-ups take the “Now, let's try it full-band” approach (Newsom has gone so far as to play with full symphony orchestra backing) but where Ys comes off as labored and overproduced—and made for probably the most boring concert I've ever been to (with Newsom refusing to play an encore after ten minutes of post-show clapping)—To Be Still finds Diane doing pretty much everything right. Here she's accompanied by occasional fiddle, banjo, pedal steel, and strings, and even brings in Michael Hurley to sing on "Age Old Blue."
On The Pirate's Gospel, as well as her Daytrotter and Blogotheque sessions, Diane's voice and arpeggio guitar structures could tend towards monotony—I was often left skipping half the songs out of boredom. To Be Still plays more like a Gillian Welch album, or Jack White and Loretta Lynn's alt-country classic Van Lear Rose, with its mid-tempo country and folk ballads. The difference is obvious from the first song, "Dry Grass and Shadows," with pedal steel and drums dropping in after the first few notes of guitar.
Or compare the Daytrotter session version of "White as Diamonds," with the album version, the latter with soft fiddle during the verses, rousing and slightly off-tempo drumming and bass at the first chorus.
Diane pulls the whole thing off a lot better than some recent folksters who have tried to make the transition to full band; the most obvious of course is Iron and Wine, who completely lost my interest with the Woman King EP. The difference of course is that Diane's voice is the kind that always demanded backing musicians, whereas Sam Beam, like Nick Drake, should have stuck to nothing but the most limited of acoustic arrangements. Nothing will top Beam's beautiful debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, or Drake's Five Leaves Left.
You can catch Alela Diane on tour with Blitzen Trapper throughout February and March, before she goes on a half-month tour through the U.K. and Europe.