Erika M. Anderson, formerly of the band Gowns, is a master of the mid-length, cathartic rock song. Running over seven minutes, her song "The Grey Ship" — from Past Life Martyred Saints, her solo debut under the name EMA — is a sprawling multi-part example of a style showcases in Gowns' "White Like Heaven." Sonic Youth parodied the prog-rock tendency to name each of a lengthy song's "movements" in Daydream Nation's "Trilogy," but "The Grey Ship," likewise aware of its self-indulgence, doesn't need to be arch about it. Anderson may be punk, but her talent is for noisy rock music that creates a communal emotional state — intimacy unsuited to irony.
In its first part, "The Grey Ship" sounds like a hastily recorded sketch, with EMA shuffling through a pleasant, albeit ominous, tune. "I thought it would come from further north than that," she repeats, dazed by the unexpected arrival of a portentous ship. After a few minutes, a blunt transition bumps the listener into a higher-fidelity recording and a full band. EMA lets an ominous synth drone, some abstract electric guitar slashing and a sawing viola intensify until they're a writhing mass, exploding for a few seconds of bashing before pulling back. It all concludes with a bleak coda: "My great-grandmother lived on the prairie / Nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing," Anderson sings as she trails off. "I got the same feeling inside of me / Nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing."
Whether she's whispering or hollering, Anderson is an equally compelling singer. And, like the aforementioned Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Anderson has an expert grasp on rock lyrics as meaningful nonsense — equal parts cliché, cut-up and raw, artful personal admission. Throughout her career, Anderson has made music that hangs together because of these unlikely leaps of faith between extremes. The stakes are higher on the excellent Past Life Martyred Saints, but Anderson is only jumping more confidently.