There was a lot of whispering on stage at Red Palace on Sunday night. Most of it came during the first few seconds of EMA’s slowly simmering songs, when singer-guitarist Erika M. Anderson cooed tense lyrics such as: “No one has to shriek and/No one has to worry now/I will get exactly what’s/Coming to me.”
But sometimes Anderson was simply giving instructions to herself. “Stop being a dork on stage,” she commanded herself at one point in response to some between song babbling. It was funny but she also had a point. When presenting yourself as the rough rock chick — kind of a cross between Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon — that plays raw, uncompromising songs about life as an outsider, comical asides have a way of breaking the spell you’re trying to cast.
Her stage presence is something that Anderson will have time to work on, but she might want to get cracking. EMA’s stellar debut, “Past Life Martyred Saints,” is one of the year’s most intriguing albums, notable for its dark lyrical matter and chilling soundscapes. It’s getting notice from the right folks — on Friday EMA played at the Pitchfork Music Festival, the hippest of all summer gatherings — as her combination of goth drama and grunge grit hits on a surprising pair of current underground revivals. The latter half of that equation was apparent in songs such as “Anteroom” and “Milkman,”where electric guitar crunch brought memories of Hole and Babes In Toyland rushing back.
But the more desolate the accompaniment, the better it suited EMA’s material. With Anderson on guitar, her sister Nikki on drums and two other members trading off on electric violin, keyboard and guitar, the band created murky, sinister sounds that were more about restraint than payoff. There was plenty of payoff with Anderson’s lyrics, with nearly every line coming off as some sort of catharsis. “You were the goth in high school/You cut and [expletive] your arms up/You always talked about it/They thought you’d never do it,” were the first words out of her mouth on “Butterfly Knife.” The theme of physical abuse returned on “Marked” when she growled, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark.” But Anderson is far from a victim, and with her words and low-slung guitar can inflict plenty of damage herself.
The 40-minute set had highlights but mostly seemed a warm up for “California,” a song so stunning it’s hard to imagine an EMA concert that ever ends any other way. It has an opening line for the ages (“[Expletive] California, you made me boring”) and when Anderson put down her guitar to pantomime her way through the lyrics, wrap herself in the microphone cord and gasp the final words it was clear Anderson’s further along in her on-stage development than she previously let on.