New York-based singer/songwriter and violin virtuoso Emily Wells has been described as mixing folk, classical and hip-hop together which, let’s face it, doesn’t sound particularly enticing. Thankfully, the reality is far more palatable. Although Wells has been around for a while (self-releasing cassette albums in her teens), Mama is described as her first ‘official’ release – although it is technically a follow-up to 2008’s The Symphonies: Dreams Memories & Parties – and has a freshness and vitality about it that proves startling.
It’s easy to see why such labels have been thrown around, though. Wells is pretty much unclassifiable – imagine a strange hybrid of St Vincent‘s Annie Clark and Lana Del Rey, with Owen Pallett arranging the songs, and you’re only halfway there. Like her fellow violinist Marquis Toliver, her sound is strange and otherworldly, yet could easily be accessible enough to prove a crossover hit.
She’s also recently worked with former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman turned film score composer Clint Mansell, which makes perfect sense as there’s a cinematic atmosphere to much of the material on Mama. The swooping, dramatic strings of Fire Song, for example, or the woozy, lurching melodies of the self-explanatory Instrumental could easily soundtrack a particularly dramatic scene in a low-budget indie movie.
Mostly though, Mama shows off Wells’ admirable skills as a songwriter as well as a talented multi-instrumentalist. Dirty Sneakers And Underwear is a thrillingly obtuse ride mixing Wells’ rapid fire half-spoken half sung vocals on the verse with a haunting, almost poignant chorus of “I just want to feel better… I want to feel right”. Underneath it all are some scattered beats and eerie, looped samples. It soon proves an addictive mixture.
The similarly paced, and intriguingly titled, Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House is another highlight, offering a more modern spin on some traditional Americana, while opening track Piece Of Me is a slow-burner of an introduction, reserved and calm while still managing to pack an incredible amount of intensity into its three and a half minutes.
Vocally, there’s often an uncanny similarity to Lana Del Rey, and she shares her love of dramatic, swooning arrangements, such as the naggingly catchy Mama’s Gonna Give You Love or the smokey, blues ballad of Let Your Guard Down. She saves perhaps the biggest surprise till the very end though with the beautifully simple folky strum of Darlin’ – possibly the most conventional, straight-ahead ‘pop’ song on Mama. It’s just one Later… with Jools Holland appearance away from being a huge hit.
It all adds up to an often breathtakingly good album which sports an incredible level of invention and ideas crammed into its running time. In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you define this as folk, or classical or even hip-hop: it’s simply a truly great record; one that marks Emily Wells as a real talent to behold.