TVD Live: EMA, 7/16 at Red Palace

Photos: Lindsey Walter

EMA, who recently released the album Past Life Martyred Saints, excels at evoking conflicting emotions. Erika M. Anderson’s songs are fierce lullabies that soothe and sear, simultaneous expressions of love and loathing, cathartic kiss-offs that also contain apologies and regrets.

On stage at the Red Palace Sunday night, Anderson’s ability to smash together and produce unsettling emotions was magnified. She switched from pleading to swaggering, soft to loud, threatening to seductive; without warning—seduction became threat became plea, and soft words hit with more impact than the loud ones. She used her whisper more sparingly in performance than on her record, but this only imbued it with greater power.

Little snatches of lyrics stood out from her songs. On “Breakfast,” she chanted softly, over and over, “Mama’s in the bedroom don’t you stop,” sexy as hell and deeply unsettling.

On “Anteroom,” the second to last track she played, she sang “If this time through we don’t get it right, I’ll come back to you, in another life.” Over crashing cymbals, Anderson wrung all the hopefulness and hopelessness out of that statement. She gets the maximum possible emotional impact from her words.

Like their singer, the rest of the band kept the audience off guard: tempo, volume, and instrumentation constantly changed. Anderson punched, slapped, tapped, and strummed her guitar, wringing sound out of it every way she could. Her band has two multi-instrumentalists who double up on the violin and keyboards and violin and guitar. One of the violin players often plucked along with the guitar parts.

Anderson’s sister is the drummer, and she fluctuated between aggressive avalanches of cymbal crashes and softer time-keeping, breaking into a shuffle in “Grey Ship” and then dropping out completely later in the set while Anderson sang unaccompanied. Several songs open with soft strumming from two guitars and one violin before building into something else.

“Anteroom” sounded like Nirvana unplugged at times, but the group was not afraid to scorch their way through heavier parts on songs like “Red Star” and “Butterfly Knife.” Since they have no bass player live, the feedback squall from the guitar was especially powerful, and when both guitars churned together, it was explosive.

Anderson ended the set stalking the stage as she sang “California,” wringing extra pleasure from the opening line “Fuck California, you made me boring.” This is a damn cool line, but disingenuous: nothing about EMA is boring.

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