Partisan Records, 2012
REVIEW BY: Tom Haugen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/25/2012
Thought you were well versed in every obscure sub-genre of music out there? Yeah, me too. I can even name a couple Funeral Doom metal bands. But I wasn’t prepared for Emily Wells’ brand of unorthodox genre meshing that on paper hardly sounds like it would make sense. A multi-instrumentalist who plays a variety of noise makers including a glockenspiel, Mama is a dark and chilling blend of classical instrumentation mixed with gritty folk music and, believe it or not, hip-hop beats.
Far from the feel good record of the year, Mama finds Wells painting a melancholic portrait here, her violin sounding haunting and her wordplay often bleak. Her voice is seductive, often breathy and mystical and nearly hypnotic from beginning to end. Tracks like “Darlin” and “Piece Of It” are the most straightforward folk songs here, while “Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House” aligns her almost whispered vocals against a timeless hip-hop back beat and a quicker tempo. “Let Your Guard Down” contains an almost blues-like vibe through it, and the hazy, surreal “No Good” sounds like it was recorded on a cloud.
Though comparisons really can’t do this justice as Wells is really on a path entirely her own, I do hear some parallels to Portishead in the late night atmospheres, while other times she brings to mind Joanna Newsom with her singer/songwriter background. The more dreamy moments bring to mind Mazzy Star, in a warm and almost magical way, though a more contemporary version.
Powerful in a very subtle way, this is a listen that is impressive not only for its captivating songwriting but also the highly skilled studio work. Also a producer, the myriad of interesting sounds here really adds to the overall brooding tone. Wells utilizes old synths, toys, and even cricket chirping to help mold her vision. Recorded to tape without loops and usually in one take, Mama is a cathartic look into love and turmoil from one of the brightest unknown young songwriters that deserves to be heard.