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On Second Listen: Alela & Alina – Alela & Alina EP

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California-born Alela Diane now resides in the folk heartlands of Portland, OR and is sometimes compared to (and has suffered by comparison to) Joanna Newsom. Newsom acted as a bit of a mentor to Diane when she took her first steps as a solo performer. She has toured the US and Europe largely solo but also with Tom Brosseau. Following two self-released albums early in her career, Alela Diane’s exposure increased over the past two or three years and her February 2009 record, To Be Still, received some particularly good reviews. The record established Diane as a considerable, contemporary artist in her own right.

Her alliance with fledgling singer-songwriter and guitarist, Alina Hardin, is a fairly recent venture though the pair have toured together for some time now, and Hardin’s sweet harmonies can be heard to real effect on To Be Still; however, a connection goes farther back still as Diane went to school with Hardin’s elder sister in Nevada City. Some years later a bashful Hardin played some self-penned songs to Diane and obviously made a great impression. She began to work with Diane as a live backing singer, but it wasn’t long before the younger girl moved more center stage as their two voices clearly worked so well together. In a way, their on-stage relationship has developed along similar lines to that of Ingrid Michaelson and Allie Moss.

The Alela & Alina EP is a natural development of these two artists gelling together. It originally came out in October last year as a 1,000 limited edition vinyl and as a download. The collection of six songs is aptly subtitled a collaboration of old and new and borrowed. If you like your music stripped down and folksy yet imbued with real meaning and purpose, you’ll find much to cheer you here.

“Amidst The Movement” is a strong and assured opener, a new song by Alela Diane with Hardin wafting effortlessly in and out of unison contributing some delicious high harmonies on top of Diane’s sonorous twang. Simply delivered with clear voices and skilfully picked guitars, it’s a delightful song that speaks of Diane’s grounding in traditional music. “Bowling Green” which follows actually is a traditional song from Kentucky, and in common with many tunes of its ilk, it can be found with as many lyrical variations as you may wish. It’s a pleasant, if less than riveting, song but you can’t deny the quality of the vocalization.

“Crying Wolf” is Hardin’s song and she takes the main vocal. This plaintive original has a medieval flavor to it and is quite beautifully sung. At times you almost imagine a female Simon & Garfunkel of the “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” genus. That observation is a compliment to how well the two girls blend together harmonically. The 17th Century English folk ballad, “Matty Groves”, is up next. It’s a tough choice as it’s hard to see past Fairport Convention’s seminal folk-rock version, not least because of Sandy Denny’s flawless vocal. However the duo make a great fist of it, bringing enough subtlety and variety to keep things interesting and adding some instrumental verses which maintain the urgency of the piece and a delightful coda.

“I Have Returned” is another new song by Diane and is in a similar mold to the opener; however, it is lyrically grounded in uncertainties in contrast to the earlier song’s pastoral roots. The guitar work is intricate here and contrasts nicely with the earthy, primal feel of the song. Harmonies meanwhile are once again quite blissful and beautifully recorded. The final track, “Rake”, is a cover of a song by Townes Van Zandt from his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues. It’s an interesting choice of song from a female perspective as it tells the tale of a one-time ladies man close to death and looking back in a mixture of delusion and insight on his wasteful life. Lyrically, this is as powerful as it is painful and the song is littered with biting realizations: And time was like water, but I was the sea/And I’d never noticed it passing”. The two girls sing it straight down the line, letting the words do the talking.

The EP was recorded in two days and it shows in the freshness and spontaneity that is captured here. It is a great antidote if you’ve been mainlining the music industry’s current obsession with female electronica. If you like your music honest, pure, and from the heart, Alela & Alina comes highly recommended.

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