EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring
Apparently the incredibly overrated War on Drugs makes "heartland synth rock," which we're told comes from a lineage including '80s records by Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. But what about the actual weirdoes living in the faceless small cities of rural North America, far away from commercial centres and not remotely as successful? Where the dudes at the local music shop wonder what you're doing with all that wacky synth gear? Where being a woman with a weird haircut and who plays guitar stands out at the local open mic night next to country-pop singers and nu-metal bands? Where "getting high is a family tradition" and your high school peers end up joining the Aryan Nation?
Erika M. Anderson grew up in South Dakota, fled to San Francisco to start a noise band, then moved to Portland to carve out her new musical persona. There, she started making music that spoke to the isolation, social and otherwise, that emanates from basement-apartment dwellers in hollowed-out towns where even the franchise stores have shuttered. Towns where, when options are limited, it's tempting to lash out at those with even less power than yourself.
EMA owes musical debts to Nine Inch Nails and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as industrial, goth and new wave of the '80s and '90s. She writes songs with strong pop melodies, but everything that surrounds them is often terrifying: there are no easy outs here. The appeal of this, her third solo album (following 2014's excellent The Future Void), is in the full package: her captivating vocals, her lyrical portraits, her melodies, and her entire approach to production. The latter shows her to be, unlike so many other artists for whom synths are window dressing, to be a sound sculptor, not some random patch-finder.
"The outer ring" refers to the area between the suburbs and rural areas, the last affordable place to live for city workers who have been gentrified out of their old neighbourhoods. It's a geography abandoned and rarely addressed by anything in pop culture, a place where EMA's disembodied electronic environments and conventional songwriting chops clash perfectly.
Exile in the Outer Ring is also very much a zeitgeist record, speaking to the disembodied, the dislocated, and life in the margins in modern North America. It's one of the most powerful records of 2017, and—having been released in August—was so even before greater resonance could be applied to the chorus, "Tell me stories of famous men / I can't see myself in them."
EMA is currently on tour with The Blow. They play Montreal tomorrow, Nov. 14, at Le Belmont; Nov. 15 at the Garrison in Toronto and Nov. 17—both dates with Petra Glynt—and at the UFO Factory in Detroit with Mother Cyborg.
Stream: "I Wanna Destroy," "Down and Out," "33, Nihilistic and Female"