Sometimes they come in three’s: Angie Mattson, Lohio, and Emma Hill
Some weeks back I received a press package in the mail from one Hallie Pritts, otherwise known as “The Girl from Boca Chica,” of the Pittsburgh-based alt-folk collective Boca Chica. You see, in addition to a musician and singer/songwriter Hallie is also employed as a publicist for Shut Eye Records & Promotion Agency out of Atlanta, and the three CD’s she sent my way served as part of that particular function. And though they couldn’t have arrived at a worse time, considering my journalistic plate was quite literally spilling over onto the floor with an excess of compact disc and vinyl submissions, I resolved then and there not to let them sit too terribly long. That is, upon looking over the artist information on the three separate recordings, I realized I hadn’t any previous knowledge of them whatsoever. It was a chance to listen to the songs of three new artists, in other words. And let’s be perfectly honest, I get very excited about making new discoveries in the independent, underground and obscure music scenes.
After the package sat on the passenger seat of my car for about two days I finally picked it up, my curiosity such that I could no longer ignore it, and tore into it. The three recordings enclosed were a full-length by Emma Hill titled “Clumsy Seduction,” a seven-song mini-album titled “Skeleton Arm” by Angie Mattson, and a CDep titled “Family Tree” by a band called Lohio. One by one, I gave each its turn in my player, usually listening on my hour-long drive to work, and then more often than not continuing to listen while at work.
ANGIE MATTSON — “Skeleton Arm”
With an unusual personal and artistic biography that is just as interesting as the songs she writes and performs and records, the breathtakingly gorgeous Angie Mattson – whose mother named her after a Rolling Stones song, as a point of fact – was brought up in the port city of Muskegon, Michigan. Always the restless and adventurous soul, always the daring and free-spirited individual, Angie ventured to North Carolina with a lover at the young age of eighteen. Later, she traveled and lived with some friends in an old blue school bus from which she sold her own original works of art. Eventually she made the long journey to Tokyo to work as a model, and at some point she matriculated to earn a degree in Aquatic Biology and Fisheries Management. But it wasn’t until she found herself residing in the Caribbean for a year that she started teaching herself how to play guitar on an old beat-up classical…and while on a small sailboat, no less. Presumably it didn’t take long for her begin writing her own songs. And that’s what she is still doing today, only from the Highland Park area of Los Angeles.
With a sound that is difficult to simply categorize using the cut-and-dried genres at our everyday disposal. And genres aren’t really necessary in this case. Instead we can focus more on the element parts that go into making up the musical whole of Angie’s songs, which are both organic and mechanical, like acoustic guitar, drums, keys, programming, and a variety of background auxiliary instrumentation. And it all sort of just meets in the middle to create a sound that for lack of better terms is dark Americana, neo-pop, and experimental rhythm n’ blues, with a touch of tribal fusion tied into it all. At the end of the day it’s not so much her music that grabs hold of me and commands me to listen to the seven songs on her latest release; it’s the dark, sultry and textured vocals, both beautiful and powerful, that can drift over the music like so many lovely apparitions or swell and break like so many waves during a violent storm at sea.
Though it’s not the sort of fare I normally prefer musically, I can say, confessedly, that Angie Mattson’s songs are as much of an aesthetic treasure as she is as a woman. And that is saying a lot, believe me. Also, when I searched for her online at YouTube I found live stripped-down footage with just Angie and her guitar, like “Cool Water,” “Hotel Utah,” and “Thank You,” which I enjoy much more than the highly produced and less organic songs on the “Skeleton Arm” album.
LOHIO — “Family Tree”
Next up we have the Pittsburgh-based indie rock and orchestral pop quartet Lohio, whose latest five-song CDep “Family Tree” has been fairly well received by both fans and press alike. It’s a big, experimental sound that Lohio lays claim to, dense and complex and fluid, with a wide assortment of instrumentation, almost like something between Canada’s Bruce Peninsula, Minneapolis’s The Umbrella Sequence, and the brilliant Sufjan Stephens…at least to a point, anyway.
Lohio’s core lineup consists of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Greg Dutton, Liz Adams on bass and piano, Erik Cirelli on electric guitar, and Paul Smith on drums and trumpet. In addition to the core members, at least six other musicians assisted on the “Family Tree” recording in an auxiliary capacity, contributing backing vocals, clarinet, percussion, French horn, piccolo, and accordion. Suffice to say, there are a lot of working parts that go into the Lohio whole. Such things indicate a certain investment, to be sure, and for the Lohio gang that investment is beginning to pay off.
Though I am able to appreciate Lohio up to a point, on a few different levels, they definitely aren’t the sort of band I normally pay much mind to. Even so, I can see how they would catch on in the indie rock and experimental pop scene.
EMMA HILL — “Clumsy Seduction”
For this piece I saved the best for last.
When I first listened to Emma Hill’s “Clumsy Seduction” album a while back I was prepared to not like it, though what ultimately happened was something else altogether. I mean, the title of the album suggests a bunch of sappy love songs; and while many of the songs deal with matters of the heart, with unrequited love and rocky relationships, as well as that thing deep within each of us which pushes us forward even when we think we’ve given the last of ourselves away, they are more of a musical testament to the human condition than anything. They are also a handful of very specific chapters of one young woman’s life — in this case, Emma Hill’s life — and the more memorable events that transpired throughout, good and bad. Emma simply put them together in a way that involved just as many heartstrings as guitar strings, creating a collection of songs that are sentimental and visceral, decidedly more concerned with feelings than intellect. Some of the songs are like looking back through a keyhole to a door which can never be opened again, since the door represents the past, and the past proves inaccessible to anything but memory. We can never go back, and that’s why it’s so very precious. That’s why it’s worth remembering, after all.
Granted, “Clumsy Seduction” is a very personal album. Emma Hill braved the heart and put it all on the table, like a handful of pages torn from her diary and spread out for all to read. And for me, the lyrical content was secondary to the vocal delivery and overall composition of each number. That is to say, each song is a well-stitched garment that keeps one warm in the chill of lonely nights and hurt feelings, of a head heavy and spinning with last night’s drink, of long remembrances and uncertain tomorrows, of so many things that more often than not prove difficult to put down on paper.
It is rare for me to find female singer/songwriters that really knock my socks off — musically speaking, of course — and even rarer still to come across female singer/songwriters as young and talented as Emma Hill, whose songs simply cannot be ignored. And that is so from the opening song on “Clumsy Seduction” “Lady of the Sea,” a slightly twangy alt-country composition, to the closing song “Highway 101,” a folky and slow-moving road song. Of course, there are thirteen more songs on the album that deserve just as much attention, like “One Glass Too Many,” “We Do Better in Bed,” “We Laughed All Night,” “Billy,” “Midnight Phone Call,” “Doctor,” and “I Am the Rock, You Are the Wind.” Ok, that’s almost the entire album. But…quite frankly, it would be very hard for me to choose a favorite song out of the bunch, especially since they are so consistent in quality of composition and lyrical structuring and additional instrumentation.
Speaking of additional instrumentation, Emma often employs the use a backing band she refers to as her Gentleman Callers. Most recently the gents consist of Bryan Daste on pedal steel and vocals, Andrew Nelson on drums and vocals, and John Blunk on the upright bass. Now, placing a backing band behind an exceptionally talented singer/songwriter oftentimes does more harm than good to the overall sound, though in this particular case that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Gentleman Callers serve to enhance Emma’s sound considerably; which is to say, the four work rather nicely together, with plenty of combined skill and chemistry. And that is no doubt how you would catch them live at one of their shows — as Emma Hill and Her Gentleman Callers.
When digging up a little bit of background on Emma Hill, I learned that she grew up in a small Alaskan village called Sleetmute, where she began working on her signature sound as a singer/songwriter. For high school Emma and family uprooted and moved over to Palmer, after which she tried her hand at being a live performer in and around Anchorage. At that time she was part of a few different musical projects, among them were Blackbird Productions and Pennies & Patches. In 2006 Pennies & Patches were on pause indefinitely, as Emma had relocated to Portland, Oregon, where she hunkered down to start writing her own solo material. After only a year, Emma had released her first solo album titled “Just Me” on Kuskokwim Records. To support the album, Emma began touring, which took her all over the west coast and finally across the country.
In 2008, having already toured extensively and achieved regular radio play on college and independent stations, Emma was ready to record yet again, this time with the songs collectively known as the “Clumsy Seduction” album. Released at the end of 2009, “Clumsy Seduction” went on to be praised by fans and press all over. And with the addition of her backing band, The Gentleman Callers, the sound that so many have come to appreciate over the years has only seemed to improve.
At present Emma Hill and Her Gentleman Callers are hard at work on her third release titled “Meet me at the Moon,” which should be out by early 2011.
As I have already mentioned, it is not so much the indie folk, alt-country and delicate roots sound that Emma has created, but the soulful beauty of her impossibly powerful vocals. To be sure, it’s the kind of voice that one can easily fall in love with. Yes, I admit it, I’m smitten!
*Photo (above): Emma Hill (from promo collection).