REVIEW: Alela Diane - "Alela Diane & Wild Divine"

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Alela Diane - Alela Diane and Wild Divine
Release date: 3/4/11
Record Label: Rough Trade

By now we should all know that "expanding their sound" as in "Musical artist X is expanding their sound on their new album" is a euphemism for watering down, quantity over quality. Alela Diane expands her sound on her new record ...& Wild Divine. Well, at least that's how it begins. "To Begin" the lead single and first track on the album sees Diane crooning over bouncy, lounge-inspired instrumentation. It's quite a marked difference from the opening of To Be Still which was easily one of the most surprising records of 2009. Diane captured something beautiful on that album -- a folksy romantic who knew enough to be cynical, the lyrics were impeccably rendered and set against a backdrop of sweeping steel guitars, stoccato rhythms and fiddles that seemed to clammer for life itself. To Be Still was full of the woods, of brambles and briars, of dresses getting torn and mended. In To Be Still Diane cast herself as a rustic; in ...& Wild Divine she recasts herself as a sophisticate to mixed results.

It's, perhaps, as unwise to compare one album to another as it is to compare one artist to another. And, with the surprise and whole-hearted enthusiasm that Diane elicited on To Be Still asking for a follow-up is equally fool hardy. However, listening to both albums back to back illustrates the extent to which Diane's musical acumen is flattened on ...& Wild Divine. To put it more simply, this record isn't necessarily bad, just flat and roundly uninteresting. There's little "wild" or "divine" about it. In fact, by the time we get deeper into the album, it sounds like a compilation of songs that didn't make To Be Still. A lot of the songs are character sketches like "Elijah," "Suzanne," and "Desire." And the characters seem rather passionless. Over a set of woodblocks, acoustic guitar, and dub-y kind of bass, Diane sings "Dark hair and midnight eyes / She's looking like it's 1995." It's not exactly the kind of opening that makes you want to dive right into a song. And the poetic image that she conveys is casting back. It seems like an inside joke to herself rather than a communication to the listener.

Diane can still sing her ass off and the relatively static instrumentation allow us to focus on the voice. This is a blessing at times and troublesome at others as Diane's melody quavers you get the sense that she's trying to make up for a lost verve. It's a marked change from the majesty and lavishly woven tunes of To Be Still where the voice was another landform in the landscape of every song (to mix my metaphors). Here, the voice is set clearly apart and though Diane's vocal chords can obviously carry the burden, there's little support behind it.

It's a general policy that I have in thinking about reviews to not out and out dismiss an artist because of one subpar record. And, as a great believer in fandom -- the act of loving a band or artist no matter what -- I try not to let an artist not living up to my expectations get me down. I'm an unabashed fan of Diane's work and this is not an apology for the review. Rather, it's important to weigh these sentiments and consider just what you want something to be as much as it is to consider what something is. In short, Radiohead's not going to make The Bends again. No matter how you love them or that album, it's not going to happen, so give up being mad when they don't. The face of an artist always looks forward. A career is based on either profluence or stagnation. In Diane's case, this is a swing and a miss and there's sure to be greater things in store, looking forward. As she sings on "Rising Greatness" -- "But Suzanne she bought more time / she won a wager with the sky."


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