Emma Tricca – St. Peter
Dell’Orso Records – 20 April 2018
About two minutes and ten seconds into Emma Tricca’s new album you realise that you are in the company of someone a bit more special than your average folky singer with an acoustic guitar. The bottom drops out of the opening track, Winter, My Dear, and what remains – a short, wordless vocal refrain – leaves you with a tingling sense of openness, a feeling of something suddenly discovering its freedom, like the first flight of a fledgling. It’s a magic that exists not just in the moments of epiphany (and this album has a few of those) but in the very bones of the sound. St. Peter is full of shimmering, finely crafted layers. Tricca has employed an enviable array of talented collaborators to help achieve this unique effect, but it is her own approach to music-making that really marks this out as a serious piece of work.
At every turn of this remarkable album, Tricca goes against the grain, even when that means resorting to an unfashionable way of working. Where once it would have taken considerable effort for a folk singer to travel, to encounter and absorb new cultural influences, it is now much easier. What a six month trip to Africa or Asia once represented can now ostensibly be achieved through an evening’s trawl through Bandcamp or Youtube. But dipping into something is not the same as experiencing it, and Tricca is well aware of that. She is well-travelled in the old, literal sense. Originally from Rome, she has spent time in London and Oxford, and St. Peter was recorded in Hoboken, New Jersey. On her previous album – 2014’s Relic – she allowed her geographical influences to seep into her songs in a way that valued subtlety over stridency, and the result was beautiful and sometimes eerie, recalling the best work of Bridget St. John, early Bob Dylan or Jessica Pratt.
St. Peter takes a step into the unknown. The folk influences are still there, but Tricca has added something else to her sound. The three and a half years between albums has allowed her to forge links with a wealth of willing co-conspirators: Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley plays drums, Jason Victor of The Dream Syndicate provides guitars. Giant Sand main-man Howe Gelb puts in an appearance, as does Judy Collins, one of Tricca’s formative influences. Shelley’s drums play a particularly important role in Fire Ghost, in which the muffled sea-boom recalls John Cale’s Emily. Percussion is rarely expected to provide ambiguity, but Shelley pulls it off. Tricca’s lyrics are equally enigmatic, addressing an unknown subject who is compared to a lighthouse keeper, a symbol of liminality and introspection that hints at one of her major influences, the Poeti Crepuscolari: the Italian poetry movement that was a darker shadow of the French symbolists.
Tricca’s muses remain primarily in the folk world, but her means of channeling them are tweaked ever so slightly – Julian’s Wing’s is not unlike early Joni Mitchell until the fuzz of its instrumental core emerges like one of Yo La Tengo’s softer moments, while Buildings In Millions begins with a damp creep, like moss over rock, before it is punctuated by insistent drums and a glimmer of electric guitar, which in turn builds to a quietly dramatic melodic wall.
Salt is a departure of another kind: country rock in the style of Neil Young or Jason Molina, with grungy, descending chords and suitably frazzled lyrics (not to mention the emotional hit of violin). Green Box is a delight of high and lonesome fingerpicked guitar until roughly half-way through, when it halts itself to insist on a different kind of progress, as a slower, more distorted kind. And then Tricca gives in to gentleness again, with Mars Is Asleep. She is, on top of everything else, a formidable singer, and this track shows her at her most controlled and pristine.
The Servant’s Room is perhaps her most ambitious statement. It begins as a slow, loping folk-rocker in the style of Fairport Convention, complete with seventies-style guitar effects, but at a certain point you notice the piano that flits in and out of the song, and once you’ve noticed it you can’t ignore it, like Charlie McCoy’s guitar part on Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. By the end of the song, you wonder how something so innocuous can be so beautiful. But it is not a one-off. Solomon Said is seven and a half minutes of unsettling spoken-word narration set against a building guitar figure. It is unsettling, uncanny and fragmentary, Judy Collins’ magnificent voice recites her own song “Albatross”, remaining deadpan while the music around her slowly rouses itself into a maelstrom of discord worthy of John Cale…exceptional.
Final track So Here It Goes begins in the same discordant manner, before clearing like a pool of water to reveal an image of Tricca at her purest. But even here all is not as it seems. The unease which has been simmering under the song for its first half breaks out and the whole piece becomes the kind of dirty industrial glam stomp that David Lynch might well have found a use for in the recent Twin Peaks reboot.
And that is the essence of the album, really. There is a surprise around every corner (surprises that are made even more compelling by the fact that there is a distinct and overarching theme at work), and Tricca shows a constant willingness to experiment. Except it feels less like a willingness to experiment – which seems to imply passivity – and more like a sheer bloodyminded dislike of monotony and disregard of the safe confines of genre. She approaches folk music in the same way that Julia Holter approaches classical music: with the intention of bending it to her will, of creating something new on her terms. The constraint of song is simply a frame in which anything can be drawn, and Tricca has the artistic vision to recognise and embrace that. She is one of the most uniquely talented songwriters around, and St. Peter is her best work to date.
Photo Credits: Benedetta Ubezio (main image), Michela Di Paolo (inset image)