Alela Diane (born Alela Diane Menig) is associated with the so-called “psych folk” and/or “New Weird America” movements, but as with the previously featured Marissa Nadler, similarly associated, there is nothing freakish or discomfitingly idiosyncratic about this young California-raised, Oregon-based singer/songwriter. On the contrary, “White as Diamonds” strikes me as solid as a genuine folk song, with the added benefit of a great—if offbeat—hook. This hook isn’t part of the chorus (there is in fact no chorus), it’s not even a particular turn of phrase or melody; instead, it’s her ongoing use of what is officially called melisma, which is when a singer uses several notes to sing one syllable of a lyric.
Rooted in ancient, sacred music, utilized in classical music, and rendered histrionic by most American Idol contestants, melisma can be not only aurally engaging but emotionally powerful in the hands of the right singer. Diane nails it so well that, as noted, the melismatic recurrence is, really, the song’s great hook. Listening to her singing “white as diamonds” (0:16) or “I was sifting through the piles” (0:51) (melismas on “sifting” and “piles”) or “a tangled thread” (1:01) (check out that upward flutter as she stretched the second syllable of “tangled” out, briefly but indelibly), something inside me opens to her, completely. The song has both a homespun feel, accentuated by the plaintive fiddle accompaniment, and a solemn rhythmic throughline, almost like an old Civil War song, but—in part because of the repeated melisma—is buoyed by a curious sense of the unexpected, which comes to the fore during the bridge (2:04), when the song’s beat is overtly disrupted by a shift in the drumming.
“White as Diamonds” will be found on Diane’s To Be Still CD, coming out on Rough Trade in February. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group web site.