It's fairly likely that you have never heard of Emily Jane White or her music, even though she is native to these parts (she grew up in Fort Bragg on the Mendocino coast, went to UC Santa Cruz, and lives in the Bay Area). Her first album, Dark Undercoat, was released in 2007 to critical acclaim and spawned a loyal, but limited following. She may not have name recognition in the states just yet, but that isn't the case in other parts of the globe: the French really, really dig her. With the release of her second album, Victorian America, which she recorded over three years in San Francisco and Oakland, she is bound to get the attention from her fellow countrymen that she deserves.
In the album opener "Never Dead," we meet White on a particularly hard night on which "bad news blew right through [her]." Over mournful guitar chords, she pleads with the morning sun to come and wipe the sorrow away. Pretty somber territory for the first number, but White manages to instantly transport her listener to that particular dark corner of the heart. The mood does pick up though with "Stairs," a winding song that swerves and swells as it progresses, its tempo seamlessly morphing into something unexpected over and over again.
More surprising than tempo shifts is White's subject matter. On the twangy "Victorian America," she melds the plight of women in the Victorian era with the cataclysmic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Say what? Those two topics don't seem like likely bedfellows, but she somehow makes it work. White sings of the women who lost themselves to Victorian era sexism and of the hurricane survivors who lost their homes as well as their hope in their country. "A giant flood took Louisiana but it took more than the city of New Orleans," she sings matter-of-factly in her trademark smokey voice. Other powerful tracks worth a listen are the thunderstormy "Liza" and the gothic "A Shot Rang Out."
"I'm drawn to writing sad songs. It's not my job to create happy music. I'm okay with that," White admits. And, listening to this pack of bluesy songs, we come to accept that fact as well. Each song explores what White calls "the shadow side of life" -- the things that people are afraid to confront -- whether that's death, injustice, or decaying love. She does all of this beautifully of course, but, toward the end of the album, all the heartache starts to take its toll. No one said being sad was easy, but Emily Jane White sure makes it look that way.
Victorian America is out now. Catch Emily Jane White at the Hemlock on April 29, 2010 at 8pm.