‘Drums, keys, beat machines and whatever else she can fit in her road case’
Trained violinist Emily Wells successfully merges hip-hop and classical to create a folktronic sound that is all her own. She has brought out seven albums since 1999, mostly on her own label. Cazz Blase has a listen to Mama, her first release in the UK
While Texan multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and singer Emily Wells is no stranger to music fans and critics across the Atlantic, Mama is her debut album for the UK market. It is possible, especially if you’ve seen the recent psychological thriller Stoker, that you will have encountered her work. If your appetite has been whetted by ‘Becomes the Color’ (her contribution to the Stoker soundtrack) or the recent single ‘Passenger’, Mama provides a more detailed map to Wells’ work.
Wells is a classically trained violinist who also plays “drums, keys, beat machines and whatever else she can fit in her road case“. She makes intricate and textured songs that are not so much written as created.
A raspy southern gothic track, ‘Piece of It’, opens the album, which marries lovely strings with eerie Americana. The sound is polished, accomplished and minimal, with echoes of both Laura Veirs and Cat Power. She makes it sound easy.
Wells’ acknowledged debt to hip hop is evident on ‘Dirty Sneakers and Underwear’, which sounds more like Beck circa Odelay or early Luscious Jackson. The pretty strings that float in and out of the track give it a breezy, summery sound, whereas the clattering drums that emerge as the song transmutes into a bleary soundscape are innovative and evocative of the rattling of sticks on metal dustbins.
Wells reins herself in for this tale of love-gone-wrong
It took me some time to get over the disappointment of recent single ‘Passenger‘ not being a cover of the famous Stooges song, but once I did, I was increasingly charmed by its understated wooziness. The song begins with a mournful harmonica set against strings, then the drums kick in: slow and lethargic, but solid, allowing the strings to soar. Wells drawls rather than sings, and the overall vibe is of a doped up Cat Power. Self-destruction seems to be the theme, with Wells singing at one point: “If you give me the keys, you know I won’t survive.” When you scratch the surface, it’s quite dark for a single and there’s a deceptiveness to it that is oddly charming; at first listen ‘Passenger’ sounds like a woozy alt singer/songwriter americana lo-fi song, but then after a few listens it becomes apparent that the arrangements are actually quite layered, textured and complex, with dark and self destructive lyrical content.
The spooky and sexy ‘Mama’s Gonna Give You Love’ comes over like Sonic Youth’s collaboration with Cypress Hill, ‘I Love You Mary Jane’, or Billie Davis’ maintaining “No other baby can thrill me like you do” on ‘No Other Baby’ if it was remixed by Folk Implosion. There is an elusive yearning quality to the vocals, particularly in the chorus. This is where hip hop beats meet southern gothic and is perhaps the closest the album gets to the intricately constructed ‘Becomes the Color‘. With any luck it will be a single sooner rather than later.
The bafflingly titled ‘Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House’ is perky in a steely eyed way. It’s a nice little song but it feels curiously unimportant and unmemorable, banjo in the middle aside.
By contrast, the electrifying ‘Let Your Guard Down’, in which Wells embodies the spirit of Janis Joplin at her most mournful and blues-like, is something of a departure for Wells. Here she deploys subdued piano and guitar, and the focus is therefore on her voice rather than the music itself.
The phrasing is perfect, and she delivers a straightforward blues with noirish tension achieved with subtle strings. Wells reins herself in for this tale of love-gone-wrong and the woman who has nothing before gaining a man and material wealth but then loses herself in the process and probably the man as well; lines such as “You gonna wear this on your sleeve” are spine tingling in delivery. Unlike Janis Joplin, Emily Wells doesn’t seem the type to have a handbag big enough for a bottle of Southern Comfort and a book (or indeed a handbag full stop) but you never know. While not as representative of Wells’ oeuvre as ‘Mama’s Gonna Give You Love’, this is the absolute highlight of the album.
A discordant string section weaves in and out of hip hop beats like a creaking door or screaming saw, and the result is fresh and adventurous
Having said that, the cinematic and highly atmospheric ‘Fire Song’ runs it a close second or third, and sees Wells cast as rueful arsonist as she intones “My old house… gonna burn it down”. Her phrasing is accomplished and this is a sophisticated and elegant piece that is more subtle than ‘Let Your Guard Down’ while also being a beautiful song brimming with taut emotion and regret.
After the emotional dramas of ‘Fire Song’ and ‘Let Your Guard Down’, the scratchy and spacey ‘No Good’ is a patchwork of samples and clicks. A discordant string section weaves in and out of hip hop beats like a creaking door or screaming saw, and the result is fresh and adventurous: a new avant garde take on hip hop that is to be welcomed.
‘Instrumental’ is a musical patchwork of southern twangy guitar, scuffed beats rattling away underneath like tickertape, a violin and keyboards. The instruments are layered and textured, and the result is both intriguing and effective, up to and including what sounds like a finger being wiped around a milk-bottle rim at the end.
Mama concludes with ‘Darlin’, in which the restless Wells reveals that “I’m leaving on the first train tomorrow.” Musically its part southern folk, part lullaby and send off to the lover left behind, but thematically it’s like a much more cheerful ‘Touch Me in the Morning’, one with no regrets or recriminations. It’s a pretty and sweet song, with marching band drums and an unexpected departure into Conway Twitty at the end. Given the diversity and wide-eyed adventure of the rest of the album, to find Wells suddenly warbling “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine” feels less odd than you might expect. “Expect the unexpected” could be her watchword.
Head and shoulders shot of Emily Wells standing in front of a beige curtain with a mix of faded brown vertical stripes. She is looking straight at the camera (unsmiling). A tattoo of the feminist fist/female symbol can be seen at the bottom of her right arm, while the full detail of the ones on her left arm can’t be seen clearly. The top of a star tattoo can be seen on her chest, just above the line of her plain white T-shirt.
Emily Wells, ‘Mama’s Gonna Give You Love’: Video shows Emily Wells setting up her instruments in what appears to be a concrete garage-like building containing cars. It is raining. Emily records her backing vocals and music samples as she goes along and plays a range of instruments including toy piano, drums and tambourine during the clip. She is singing throughout.