Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area and her native Michigan, Anna Ash is still a relative unknown. So the first thing one should know about Anna before diving into her music is this: the girl has a cinematic flair for conveying dramatic romance. So ya better be comfortable with the ideas of fist fights, making out in the rain, and hopeless, careless L-O-V-E.
She’s also got high-art ambitions and charm for miles.
These Holy Days, the first full-length album by Anna Ash, is an audacious vehicle for a spine-shivering voice that’s as much rooted in Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald as it is in Annie Clark and Sharon Van Etten, topped off with just a touch of midwestern twang. That voice is the one constant thread throughout the album, as she switches up players, studios and producers in pursuit of a bridge between a classy, traditionalist folk pop sound and modern pop music.
When Anna is most closely rooted in her traditionalist tendencies – and those moments are by far in the majority on These Holy Days – she is at her shimmering, virtuosic best. Album opener “Just Like The Movies” plays like a 1950s slow dance fantasy, albeit with that decade’s innocent facade smeared with a touch of disillusionment. It sets the tone for the album, both sonically and thematically, as she shifts from the string-laden cries of “Paradise” and the title track, to the playful “Heartbreak Season.”
The latter offers an early and telling bit of coquettish humor that speaks to both the sexual and professional frustrations of Anna’s generation without the slightest hint of angst or self-pity. In fact, her declaration that “we’re just a bunch of boys and girls” couldn’t be more true for any living generation today – the “adult” in the room is even more elusive than Waldo these days. And we seem to be OK with that.
“Strangers Again,” however, offers a more measured view on friends and relationships, as the narrator lays back against a bed of reverb-drenched electric guitar bossa nova and sings with a resigned acceptance of the fact that, not only do our friends sometimes act like strangers with emotional and physical distance, sometimes we, ourselves, do too. And yet, there’s a tinge of hope that maybe, just maybe, those moments of distance are as fleeting as a 3-minute pop song.
In the Kickstarter campaign that Anna launched back in December of 2010 to fund the making of These Holy Days, she stated her intent to record and release an EP. At eleven songs, the EP became a full-length album, though the original intent of an EP is evident in the record’s less ambitious moments. “Your Winter Hymn” is largely an instrumental, a pretty palette cleanser with wordless vocals blending into the overall sonic landscape. “Can’t Stay Too Long” is a lo-fi autoharp lullaby, and “Love Like You Do,” while sporting the album’s most modern production touches, plays less like a complete song and more like an experimental warm-up for a new musical direction that’s far removed from the album’s predominant style.
On the whole, These Holy Days is a fine debut that shows off an artist who, while more fully-formed than many at her young age, still has lots of room to grow. While anticipating that next notch on the yardstick, she has given us a beautiful, well-crafted soundtrack to those moments of waiting, living and loving. Viva la romance!
- Anna Ash celebrates the release of These Holy Days with a special live performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, 2619 Broadway at 27th St., on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 8 PM.
- These Holy Days is available for purchase at Bandcamp.
- Read/watch Anna Ash’s Parlour to Parlour interview from May 30, 2011.