With natural charisma that fills up any room she’s in, Emilia Dahlin hardly has to take chances. She could stand up on stage, her five-foot frame half hidden by a big acoustic guitar, and sing just about anything, daring the audience not to fall in love with her. Instead, she’s assembled a crack band, delved into creative jazz phrasings, and nearly completely thrown off an early reputation as your standard girl-power singer/songwriter.
It’s taken a fair bit of work, of course. Dahlin has never shied from gathering a fanbase, promoting herself, and using the folk infrastructure to get her music in front of people whose opinions other people take note of. From showcasing for college booking agents to making the finals of the NEMO and Telluride Music Festival songwriting competitions, winning the Best Music Poll in surprise fashion in 2005 or as the favorite this year, Dahlin has used what’s out there to build the impressive resume of a professional musician.
In 2004, she released Emilia, a reintroduction of sorts to the Portland scene, building on songs first worked out on her Stealing Glimpses EP. There was some intriguing songwriting, and touches of the aggression and self-confidence she exuded in person, but now, with her sophomore full-length, it appears Dahlin is ready to fulfill her ample potential. In these days of independent releases, we often hear what would have been demos as debuts and have the opportunity to watch artists evolve on successive albums. When a performer works as hard is Dahlin, and is willing to let other musicians contribute, it’s worth watching.
On her new album, God Machine, Dahlin has fully embraced the jazzy sound she introduced with “No End” last album. Right out of the gate, with the infectious and tantalizing “Candy,” Dahlin embraces her capable band, which seems to want to push her into interesting arrangements and upbeat flourishes. “Candy” opens with Dahlin on a freakin’ accordion, for cripe’s sake. But she’s still a songwriter at heart, and “Candy” also has her talent for turning a phrase on display. How’s this for an opening couplet? “Candy was the sweetest girl, as sweet as sweet could be/And all the boys with sweet tooths wound up with cavities.” It’s delivered, too, with a burlesque affect, dripping with sass. It threatens to get a little too cute, but Dahlin senses that and cuts it off at 2:12.
That leaves Adam Frederick to open the next tune, “Home to Grey,” with an urgent break on his standup bass, which you’ll have a hard time ignoring throughout the disc. Here Dahlin puts on her best charm, using her true voice, which doesn’t have a hint of husk or breathiness, and delivering a fisherman’s song, of leaving home on the ocean to make a fortune and missing home. Later, in “Sad Affair,” we get a tale of an illegal immigrant, which is certainly politically poignant, and Dahlin does her best Nelly Furtado in trying to sell it and mostly succeeding. Drummer Seth Kearns trades in his kit here for the sabar and kashini (think congas), and Dahlin’s flamenco turn on her acoustic guitar completes the effect.