I was first introduced to New Jersey artist Emily Grove in early 2013 when she both played a support slot for David Ford and was part of his four-piece band, which also included Texan songsmith Jarrod Dickenson. I was immediately intrigued by the kind of strong, charismatic performances and edgy song writing that had won her a handful of music awards, at both local (Asbury Park) and state level, and so walked away from the gig with her very fine EP, “Way Across The Sea” which I’ve played and enjoyed often ever since. We were treated to a couple of songs from her forthcoming album which sounded rather good, so I’ve kept my ear to the ground for that album ever since. My patience has been rewarded as “The Life Of A Commoner”, Emily’s début long player, is now available (albeit only currently on import or via instant digital download in the UK) and, more importantly, it was well worth waiting for. Produced by Jason Rubal (Amanda Palmer, Bitter Ruin) at his Seventh Wave Studio, this album is a powerful mix of several genres which, if you’re into pigeon-holing music, you could loosely label alternative folk, all with Emily’s distinctive, expressive vocals at the forefront of the sound.
The album cover, which depicts Grove as Queen of the spiders, is telling, given her arachnophobia, and gives a little hint of the darker elements of this work. “I Hate Mondays”, a stark, dissatisfied minor key howl at the world over acoustic guitar begins the album in an uncompromising manner and, straight away, it is difficult not to be reminded of Alanis Morissette, both in terms of style and voice; it’s terrific stuff. The opening chords of “Lock Me Out” come across like a speeded-up “Polly” (Nirvana) but finds its own feet very quickly with Emily’s remarkable vocal performance sounding very much like The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, inflections and all and some really satisfyingly rich, deep bass. The composition proves to be as strong as the performance, as Emily and the band explode into an angst-driven, memorable chorus which is difficult to get out of your head even after it has finished. Guitar and voice performance, “Timothy” is a fine song but feels slightly underdeveloped, especially given the fact that it follows the powerful “Lock Me Out”. The biting lyrical content of the excellent “Flea”, which also appears on her 2011 EP, describes a the full weight of a parasitic relationship, although the heavy subject matter is counterweighted by a big, catchy chorus.
The title track is a brilliant modern protest song, a defiant anthem which is is maddeningly infectious; the type of song to have the audience singing along enthusiastically by the end, which comes around all too quickly. “Spider”, one of the stand-out tracks on this release, showcases Emily’s talent for finding a big hook and pulling the listener right into the song. Part of the reason the song works so well is the restraint shown with the instrumentation and arrangement; as it is such a catchy song, it would have been very easy to make it a much bigger production, but the relatively stripped down feel of it does producer Rubal credit. “Scream”, with its R.E.M. vibe, is one of those tracks that sounds relatively unremarkable at first, but by the time you’ve listened to the album four or five times, it gets under your skin and you suddenly get how damned good it is. The folky “Nothing In Return” tumbles along nicely before “The Call”, a compelling vocal, telling the story of people pouring their hearts and problems out to (what seems to be) a radio call-in show, over a melancholy strummed guitar piece. The album concludes with an what can only be described as a strong, traditional folk-style a capella performance of “Johnny Lee”, which, although very worthy, wouldn’t have been my personal choice of songs to end the album.
To surmise, “The Life Of A Commoner” is a superb full début from Grove and, while it may not quite be the album to catapult her to international fame and recognition, it is a bold statement of her artistic vision, an able demonstration of her ability, both in terms of performance and composition, and, above all else, an absolute pleasure to listen to. In my opinion, the best moments on this album happen when there is a full band behind Emily’s striking voice, underlining the power and conviction she brings to the music. The exception to this observation is album opener “I Hate Mondays” which works particularly well because of the amount of space her vocals are given, plus, it could also be argued that the full band tracks have a much bigger impact because of the fact that there are a few simple guitar and vocal performances providing texture and context. I love how much integrity this album has, it’s almost stubbornly anti-fashionable in the way it sounds, the instruments are presented as you would hear them live and there is very little in the way of studio embellishment; it is the sound of raw talent given a chance to shine. Although I was kindly sent these tracks to listen to and review, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and have ordered myself a physical copy because, simply put, I just have to have this album in my collection, it’s that good. Uncommonly good, in fact.
“The Life Of A Commoner” by Emily Grove was released in the US on 28th March, 2014 and is available on digital download or CD from cdbaby, as well as on other larger on-line sites.
Andy Sweeney, 30th June, 2014.