Exile in the Outer Ring
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In an increasingly bleak American landscape (this review is being written after Charlottesville, North Korean nukes looming, the opioid crisis raging, income inequality increasing), there is no shortage of material for an artist like EMA (Erika M. Anderson), who has delivered one of the bleakest albums since Nico’s The Marble Index. If Exile in the Outer Ring were a book, the comparison would be with J.G. Ballard, maybe his early work The Crystal World.
It’s that book, with its devastating environment in which life is transforming into deathly yet beautiful crystal, the story’s protagonist in the end choosing beautiful death to withering human existence, which comes closest to an analogy for what EMA is doing. And she does it with both sonically and lyrically.
The trivial explanation of EMA’s sonic roots is the Velvet Underground, but that ignores her fluency with what has been called “avant-garde” music. Last year, in her show on Red Bull Radio (sadly, archives are not online), EMA spun and talked about music at the edge, such as the Mills College composers. The rock world and the “avant-garde” have met before – artists as diverse as Glenn Branca, DNA, and Miles Davis have mined this collision – but combining it with vocals, sometimes heavily distorted, that speak of a deteriorating world that maps onto the music hasn’t been on the radar.
While the basis of the lyrics resides in EMA’s South Dakota roots, in today’s political environment, the desperation she voices could be anywhere, it’s the modern version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Drugs, racism, the devastating effects of the econmy all emerge in Exile’s songs, spoken from some place inside the writer, but resonate even here in San Francisco.
This album is a frightening and delightful ride into the abyss.
EMA plays at The Rickshaw Stop on October 30, 2017. You can buy tickets here.
Watch the video to “Breathalyzer” from EMA’s Exile in the Outer Ring:
Photos by Jeff Spirer. Taken in 2015 at The Independent.