Alela Diane's debut The Pirate's Gospel was one of those albums that snuck up on you. Pleasant enough, but seemingly innocuous on a first listen, repeated spins ensured it would entrench itself in your soul and place you firmly under its warm embrace. A mix of old world folk, campfire and shanty coupled to Diane's uniquely affecting voice; it was undoubtedly, for many, one of the records of 2007. Two years on, after a hectic tour schedule and collaboration that have included the wonderful Headless Heroes project, alongside David Holmes, she releases her sophomore effort To Be Still.
Opener Dry Grass & Shadows marks an immediate departure from her debut. Where The Pirate's Gospel relied on the plaintive and often quirky duo of Diane's voice and her acoustic, To Be Still sees her flexing her song-writing muscle, fleshing out the skeletal approach from her debut with traditional instrumentation including fiddles, strings, lap steel and some percussion. Where this works, the effects are enchanting; the aforementioned opener, where lap steel swaddles guitar and percussion to create an enveloping pastoral drone. The breathtaking, cello-backed atmosphere of White As Diamonds, the banjo chug of The Alder Trees and the towering The Ocean are wonderfully majestic and tear at your heartstrings rather than tug at them. On the rare occasion her song craft doesn't hit these heights, you yearn for the bare sound of her debut, the title track in particular, recalls the overworked nature of Iron & Wine's latest output.
However fleshed out these songs are however, Diane's voice is still the lynchpin behind this project and it's still wonderful, perhaps even grown in confidence, her range filling every nuance from hoarse and uncertain to effortlessly soaring. The themes of nature, so prominent in her debut are once again ubiquitous in her follow-up. Even when the themes turn to relationships, family and friends as in the `Rocky Racoon'-esque plod of Age Old Blues, accompanied by some hoary old wolf-hound vocals, the analogies always wind themselves back to the intimate knowledge of her Nevada homelands.
To Be Still is a strong follow-up to an excellent debut. Diane's voice still powerfully touching, while the traditional compositions add an extra dimension to her craft. While the album sometimes feels that it lacks the intimacy and endearing charm of her debut, there is no doubt that these qualities will emerge with time. This is a timeless-sounding record and whether you're a fan or a stranger drawn in by the hype, this is certainly worth a purchase.
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