Of all the so-called "freak-folk" artists, Alela Diane may be the least freaky. As evinced by her 2006 debut, The Pirate's Gospel, Diane trades in warm, cascading ballads that resonate more as anachronisms than innovations, transporting you back to early 20th-century Americana rather than forward to some distorted moment where folk bleeds into other genres. In fact, she is very much a straight genre artist, and her latest, To Be Still, is a simple, unadorned genre piece.
Though undistilled in its folkiness, Still is much more ornate in its instrumentation and production than Gospel. Each track finds Diane's finger-picked guitar and vocals floating atop layers of percussion, steel guitar, tinkling piano and string accompaniments. The result is logically more dynamic than her debut. Simply put, To Be Still sounds fantastic, though I wonder what is lost in the transition to a larger sonic palette: The haunting quality that infused Gospel is missing here. If this album sounds better, it might also render Diane's voice more generic.
Content-wise, To Be Still doesn't break any new ground. It's rife with neo-pagan imagery--lots of creaking forests, sweet lavender, mud and snakeskin--with titles like "The Alder Trees," "My Brambles" and "Tatted Lace." It's a very renaissance-faire kind of album in those respects, and for some, that may mean it's a guilty pleasure.
My advice: If there's one un-ironic collection of ballads by a Nevada City elf maiden to purchase in these waning days of winter, it's To Be Still.