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Best of Portland 2009

Rattle your cage

Emilia Dahlin continues to push the envelope
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 22, 2009
STANDING STRONG Emilia Dahlin's talent may still be underrated. CREDIT NATHAN ELDRIDGE 

You'll excuse Emilia Dahlin if her first release since the well-received God Machine in 2006 is a six-song EP. She's got things to do. In just six weeks or so, she and husband Aaron Frederick (co-founder of Rippleffect, a local non-profit) take off on a year-long world tour, which will entail everything from public service to club gigs. You can't just pack for that sort of thing the night before you leave town. 

RATTLE THEM BONES | Released by Emilia Dahlin | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | April 24 |

These Frederick men are treating her well, it seems. On the new Rattle Them Bones, bassist Adam Frederick (Aaron's brother) continues to help Dahlin to refine and toy with her sound and songwriting, providing verve to match Dahlin's moxie. She's a singer/songwriter, right? Well, then why isn't there any singing on the all-instrumental "La Fin," where Frederick switches to the acoustic guitar and Dahlin provides a fine accordion melody?

Dahlin is very underrated on the accordion, I think. The guitar, too.

And since that perfect accompaniment to a car chase in a Wes Anderson film closes out the album, by that point it's no surprise. Already we've been treated with all manner of approaches.

After an 11-second ode to "Old Man Winter," full of blowing wind and rattling shutters (and bones), Dahlin gets out of the gate with a bass-heavy, jazzy strut of a title track, the kind of thing she grew into with "Candy" last album, though here she's more baby doll in her delivery. Recorded in the WERS studios in Boston, here Frederick seems completely at ease, free-wheeling and seeming to be making it up on the fly. "Old Man Winter, I challenge you," sings Dahlin with an ironic, almost robotic, keel, "to a duel of the wills." With spiraling lyrics in the verses, the chorus is rather to the point, a strong statement out of the gate, like she's puffing out her chest: "Try as you might/You just can't rattle these bones." (She gives us more of her now-famous scatting here, too.)

Dahlin's always been great at girl-power, but in her most aggressive-sounding piece, the rocking "Be My Husband," she tries the submissive role on for size. "If you want me to," she sings, this time distorted and tortured, "I'll cook and sew/Outside of you, there is no place to go." She sports a wonderfully crazed falsetto in the chorus, ear-piercing in a good way, and she does well in making this girl seem disturbed, indeed, in her desires.

Jealousy is never flattering: "Stick to the promise that you gave me/That you'll stay away from Rosa Lee."

Dahlin kicks in some Americana, too, and here with "Cast" she even tackles "Latin Americana," miming Stan Getz's samba tendencies and evincing a smooth croon to please even Astrud Gilberto. Gone are the clipped phrases you might associate with Dahlin, and in their place are syllables like taffy to go with the song's psychedelic bent: "You lift your face straight up to the sky/And never bother with what is below." There's a nice keyboard backing, too, popping in to support the melody with some subtlety, and Frederick slurs his bass all over the place.

More rootsy is "Sweet Annie," a love song of longing that opens with a quick-picked guitar in the style of Doc Watson. The lead-in verse, I'm sorry to say, reminds me of that "Ironic" song — I had to put that out there — but then it moves minor and doesn't sound like it at all anymore, I swear (unless you like that song). A toy-piano kind of thing is an icy juxtaposition with the heat the resonates though the lyrics: "I am dreaming of your mouth."

I think Dahlin is more cognizant of the listener on this album (or EP, whatever) than she's been previously. In her experimenting and role-playing she never forgets her musicality. There's nothing intentionally off-putting or jarring, though you've got to pay attention. The quick-waltz sea shanty of "Evangeline" (not to be confused with the epic Matthew Sweet tune by the same name) is like a great writer working in genre, complete with water moving and the creak of an old tied-up boat. The chorus even boasts a sailor-choir backing: "Evangeline, don't you cry for me when you realize I'm gone/I'm not worth the salt of your tears, and I'm damned for doing you wrong."

Same advice for all of you, really: Don't cry for Emilia when you realize she's gone for the next year or so. She'll be back with a whole new batch of songs, ready to play them for you.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

Related: Portland Music News: April 10, 2009, All that jazz, Portland scene report, February 17, 2006, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Aaron Frederick, Adam Frederick, Doc Watson,  More more >
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