Emma Hill is one of those rare singer/songwriters whose heartfelt and well-written songs forego the surface of things entirely and hit home every time. That was the case with all of the songs on her 2009 full-length release “Clumsy Seduction,” and it is doubly so with her new 2011 release “Meet Me at the Moon.” With thirteen original new songs, all of them backed by the three talented musicians Ms. Hill has come to refer to as her Gentlemen Callers, “Meet Me at the Moon” is unquestionably the next step for a songstress well on her way to joining the truly great women of song.
After receiving and listening to “Clumsy Seduction” I knew with the utmost certainty that I had stumbled upon something really special. Reviewing that album a few months back was an easy decision to make, just as it is an easy decision to now take on the review of “Meet Me at the Moon.” Where I had grown quite fond of “Clumsy Seduction” over a rather short period of time, “Meet Me at the Moon” commanded the whole of my attention on the very first listen, absorbing me completely, and instantly pushing me to realize that I just may have found a new favorite female artist...or at least another favorite out of the few I refer to as such.
If pressed to pinpoint a single component of Emma Hill’s indie folk and alt-country sound that stands out the most, I would definitely say it is her vocals. That is, her voice is a strong feminine timbre coupled with plenty of busy inflection, nuance, heartbroken twang, and mellifluous delivery. It resonates through the gray matter of the head and the chambers of the chest; and it canorously weaves in and out of the fabric of our beings like so many invisible needles and thread. What’s more, the poignant lyrics conveyed by her lovely voice are what I can only describe as confessionals in the church of the heart.
But there is also much to be said about the instrumentation through which Emma Hill’s voice is heard; instrumentation provided by her Gentlemen Callers: Bryan Daste (pedal steel, banjo, and vocals), Andrew Nelson (drums), and John Blunk (bass). In addition to the Gentlemen Callers, Emma employed the talents of four other musicians in the recording of “Meet Me at the Moon.” Those musicians are Matt Hopper (guitar and backing vocals), Eric Tergerson (viola), Emily Dalsfoist (cello), and Mont Christ Hubbard (piano). Altogether, these artists did a remarkable job in making a handful of great songs that much more brilliant. Her sound is decidedly fuller now, neither too simple nor too complex, with plenty of long fluid bends from Daste's lap steel, light percussive brush strokes on Nelson's drum kit, low-end notes from Blunk's upright bass, and the chord progressions of Emma's acoustic guitar.
"Meet Me at the Moon" isn't just consistent the whole way through, it becomes more and more absorbing from song to song. Now, one of the songs that really stands out among the rest is the last and untitled fourteenth track with its light acoustic strumming and passionate vocals. "You're My Man," a tribute to Leonard Cohen, is a slow, meaningful number, to be sure, and tells us volumes about Emma Hill as a human being. The eighth song, "Gold Stars All Around," is an upbeat song about gigging with fellow musicians and some of what transpires during and after. "Mr. Right" has a folky banjo feel to it, while the mellow "In the City" seems like Emma coming to terms with her transition from Alaska to Portland. And of course the title track "Meet Me at the Moon" is a catchy alt-country composition, and undeniably one of the best songs on the album.
A twenty-something Alaskan native residing in Portland, Oregon, Emma Hill has done quite a lot for her short years. Not only has she released four albums, she has had done so on her own label, Kuskokwim Records, named presumably after the Kuskokwim River. After all, the label was initially based in Sleetmute, Alaska, which is a small town on the east bank of the Kuskokwim River, with a population of under two-hundred souls. And I like to think that the latest developments in Emma's sound are a combination of the two: the strange isolation and wild beauty of Alaska with the rainy, coffee house, thift store metropolis that Portland has become over the years. It's not surprising that a songstress like Emma would relocate to Portland, since Portland has one of the richest folk scenes in the Pacific Northwest.
Emma Hill and Her Gentlemen Callers will undoubtedly hit the road at some point in the near future in support of "Meet Me at the Moon." Of course, it probably won't be like the unusual tour that she and bandmate Bryan Daste embarked on a while back, during which the two simply plane-hopped with an "All You Can Jet" pass to venues all over North America. She also just returned from a six-week European tour, where "Meet Me at the Moon's" predecessor "Clumsy Seduction" was rather well received. Personally, I hope she and the boys make it to the East Coast before long, so I can catch one of their shows in or around the Philadelphia area.
"Meet Me at the Moon" is slated for official release on February 14th. Order it online or pick it up at one of Emma's shows.
Note: Check out my first review on Emma Hill and her "Clumsy Seduction" release.