Emily Herndon, in her forthcoming full-length debut as May Stands Still, refuses to play to the hushed fragility that’s become the folkie-ingenue stereotype — forcing us to hear her songs in a whole new way.
That’s apparent from the first as the Los Angeles singer-songwriter opens with “Gotta See,” featuring a nervy acoustic guitar, a heart-splashing rhythm and a sharply ironic, simply devastating moment: “I don’t miss you,” then — “I just think about you all the time.” Herndon sounds, by turns, like Joni Mitchell and then Patty Griffin, so complete is her command of the lyric, so offbeat is her phrasing and instrumentation.
On “Wild 1,” Herndon creates a similarly interesting counterpoint by adding a jerky folk strum, even as she explores an empty place in her own life. The broken but resilient “I Want You” mimics the double-time cadence of “Gotta See,” even as Herndon intertwines her own double-tracked voice.
There are, of course, a handful of more straight-forward moments sprinkled throughout When You Come Home, times when Herndon’s work connects more directly with her forebears: “Soldier,” a moving outline on the costs of war, unfolds with the languid mystery of Mazzy Star, while “Make Me” catches a fizzy groove that channels the Indigo Girls. The closing “Blue June,” a smart rumination on lonesomeness, boasts with the brutally frank honesty of Lucinda Williams.
But, more often, When You Come Home — due on November, 1, 2012 — doesn’t so plainly state its influences, doesn’t really sound precisely like anything else that’s come before. There are soul-lifting, wordless vocal interludes, for instance, dropped into the middle of “Wherever You Are” and “Falling,” giving both of them a deeper complexity, this contemplative weight.
As she works, in a painterly way, with shadows and light, Herndon eventually uncovers the perfectly constructed mixture on “New Groove.”
An aptly named, angular number, “New Groove” finds Herndon juxtaposing a propulsive, at times almost metronomic, beat with these wildly inventive interludes — first a billowing cloudburst of strings, then a hootenanny fiddle. At the same time, she pushes her voice into this diaphanous, stunningly open place: It’s maybe the riskiest musical experiment that May Stands Still tries here, and certainly the album’s biggest triumph.
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