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Anna St. Louis - If Only There Was a River Music Album Reviews

The California singer-songwriter’s first album is exquisitely rendered, a solemn display of restraint and loneliness.

Before her debut album, Anna St. Louis flipped through the phases of folk-rock with methodical determination, trying to plot a path through the wilderness. She arrived, half a decade ago, in Los Angeles as a Midwest émigré and Philadelphia art-school graduate in search of a new setting and, turns out, a new medium. After learning the guitar, she issued two aptly titled collections—2015’s DEMOS and last year’s First Songs. The earliest set was plaintive and blunt, multi-tracked confessions of heartsickness broadcast above strummed chords—real starter-kit stuff. Two years later, though, the endearing First Songs suggested fingers feeling the walls of some unseen room in the dark. As St. Louis tried to stake out her own corner of the crowded folk-rock field, she tested arid country blues and parlor soul laments, spectral folk moans and smoldering electronic esoterica. You could name the references and hear the effort, a new songwriter diligently scouting the shape of the future songs she would sing.

At last, on the exquisitely rendered If Only There Was a River, St. Louis has started to do just that. She still writes about the sad shapes the heart can take and the loneliness that the expanses of the West can produce. And traces of restlessness pervade these 11 songs, from the Appalachia moan of the fiddle-chased “Hello” to the slightly sinister crackle of the electric “Wind.” But on a record that unfurls with the pastoral ease of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and the idiomatic flexibility of Buffy Saint-Marie’s best, she seems to have made definitive choices about the type of songs she sings and how she builds them with her band. Alongside a sympathetic crew that includes producer Kevin Morby and Pavo Pavo multi-instrumentalist Oliver Hill, St. Louis embraces a sense of elegant austerity here, so that these tunes never do too much at once. She writes, musically and lyrically, so that the emotions expressed and the genres explored are never simple or clear. Rather than continue the search and strive for more, St. Louis has settled on simply being.

The consistent restraint of If Only feels like a minor miracle. “Mean Love” begins with guitar and voice, the intimacy pulling the listener in as close as the song’s suspect subject. Suddenly, it expands, with keyboards, bass, and drums that say what St. Louis struggles to articulate—her patience is running thin. Wrapped around fingerstyle guitar and a distant, luminous drone, Hill’s violin becomes a wagging finger during the chorus of “Water,” demanding the truth from a lover. The hand-drum drift of “The Bells,” the amplifier creak of “Desert”: St. Louis has learned to say so much with so little, suggesting the kind of keen aesthetic awareness that some songwriters burn through years, producers, studios, and labels trying to develop.

Likewise, St. Louis can web prehensile ideas around the occasional breathtaking, concrete image, like a pair of headlights signaling from the other end of some dark desert strip. “The heat that we both felt/Faded out like a cigarette,” she sings wryly during “Understand,” a song that views a relationship’s future fate with elliptical indifference. “Hello” is the plea of a new city dweller looking for respite from drugs and dance halls. “How the painted floor fades/The blues turn to white, and the yellows turn grey,” she offers at the start of its second verse, the audible grin in her voice countering the exhaustion of the lyrics. Having mapped out the folk-rock landscape on First Songs, St. Louis thrives here in its liminal spaces.

She ends her debut with “If Only There Was a River,” her strangest song to date. Emulating a mandolin, her high, loping guitar sweeps into easy dialogue with Morby’s Wurlitzer. “If only,” he chants in a dreamy whisper, like a shaman conjuring St. Louis toward her own farewell. She answers, singing a wish list of personal fulfillment—a river to take her away, a town to call her home, a sense of self-worth to satisfy her needs—in a tone of pure, peerless longing. Just as the guitars, keyboards, and three-part harmonies start to crest, they disappear, vanishing at the horizon line like a dream you’ll try to remember but never will. It is a tease, an intriguing suggestion of possible next steps in the motion of one of this year’s most promising new singer-songwriters.


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