Erika M. Anderson seems like the type of friend who will sit you down, look you in the eye, slap you in the face, buy you a shot of whiskey and tell you to stop being such a freaking coward. At least that’s the sense we get after seeing the Oakland-based artist’s latest project EMA, an alternately raw and complex band, much like her adopted city. Her musical ethos is, in a word, confrontational.
They played to a shockingly sparse and quiet crowd at the Independent on Wednesday, sparse considering the success of their debut album “Past Life Martyred Saints,” which won the praise of various tastemaker blogs and the virtual knighting of Pitchfork’s Best New Music designation. But no matter our collective fickle tastes, this is a band worth exploring and keeping tabs on in any context.
What makes “Past Life Martyred Saints” so intriguing is the immediate feeling that you’re hearing a neighbor’s band playing in a garage next door, with a drunken spoken-word vocalist inexplicably stealing the show. That would be Anderson, who haunts her tracks with lo-fi whispers and oddly sweet refrains about drug abuse, self-loathing, sexual repression, and a general, vague darkness that seems to inform her sense of mortality. But, as she commented after one song, “these are my expressions of joy, believe it or not.”
There’s certainly an art-school element at work here, especially in their live show. Each garage lullaby was outfitted with noise accoutrements and various atonal bells and whistles; Leif Shackelford’s electric violin and synth-tweaks added varying degrees of sonic textures, and Nicole Anderson’s (Erika’s younger sister) drums were minimal yet dramatic, with the one exception of her extended, minute-long fill on “White Like Heaven,” which is actually a song from Erika Anderson’s previous band, Gowns (another brainy noise-ditty project worth discovering).
Anderson was more than happy to engage in moments of physical expressiveness. At one point, she contorted her body on the stage floor like an interpretive ballet dancer — a very Black Swan, if you will, or even if you won’t — pointing both legs up to the sky. And during the set closer “California,” she wrapped the microphone cord conspicuously around her neck, inviting questions about the possibly-suffocating nature of our supposedly golden state. As if that weren’t obvious by the opening lines of the song — “(Eff) you California / You made me boring...”
While there may have been moments of forced melodrama, Anderson was invariably good-humored about the whole transaction. When one fan requested a cover of Violent Femmes’ “American Music” (why, we’re not quite sure), Anderson quickly shed her perplexion and led the room in an a capella rendition of the indie anthem. At its abrupt conclusion, she asked “What the hell just happened?”
And that was a good question to ask in general on Wednesday. What did just happen? Why do I feel jarred yet enlightened? Should I go occupy something? Or should I buy myself a shot of whiskey and wake the hell up? Somebody slap me.
Photography courtesy of Misha