An artist as versatile as Emily Wells is one that should be approached cautiously for a couple reasons. First and foremost, be wary of anyone that fancies themselves a “multi-instrumentalist.” That could (and often does) mean that they picked up a harmonica set at a pawn shop earlier that month. (Fortunately, that’s not the case with Wells.) Second, it’s almost impossible to look at an artist as truly unique as Emily Wells and admire her through an un-opinionated scope. All too often we draw unfair comparisons between established artists and the newcomer in question. This pigeonholes those actually innovative, which is tragic beyond words.
It would be so easy to just say that Emily Wells sounds like a vague combination of Joanna Newsom, Owen Pallett, and a less hate-inducing Lana Del Rey, but that would be doing the New York songstress a massive injustice. Wells is doing something new, incorporating several genres to create one impressive, dynamic sound. Her eclectic collection of abilities multiplied by her even more eclectic choice of instruments (everything from classic violin to those plastic echo microphones you used to drive your parents crazy with in the ’90s) buoys something that would have been standard into something marvelous.
That said, this album is her first official release since she began recording seven years ago, and as such, it’s a little scattered. On the whole, however, it’s a pretty good amalgamation of her wide array of abilities. There’s a healthy dose of her folk-based singer/songwriter sensibility on tracks like “Darlin’” and “Piece of It”, but there’s also a hearty chunk devoted to her vocal finesse, primarily on the boisterous “Passenger”. By far the most accentuated facet of Wells’ ability on Mama, though, is her tendency to include subtle hip-hop inflections. “Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House” boasts a classic hip-hop backbeat juxtaposed against her soft crooning that creates a near perfect synergy.
It’s apparent that Wells is most comfortable with a thick layer of string arrangements and a minimalist approach to hip-hop production. As she croons on the slow jam-esque “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love”, she is completely in her element. As the album moves forward, it becomes increasingly fraught with more and more hi-hat/snare combos until you finally realize that she’s actually been doing it the whole time. Her style is subtlety at its finest.
Essential Tracks: “Passenger”, “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love”, and “Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House”