When I last had the pleasure of visiting the sonically, rhythmically, poetically and thematically eclectic musical headspace of Leland Ettinger on her self-titled 2018 opus, the big story was her passion for, connection to and literary commonalities with her idol Joan Didion – plus the maddening fact that the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist was blissfully recording again after an 11 year hiatus.
Like on that collection, the experience of immersing in her gripping, emotionally, often dark, foreboding and intense yet deeply redemptive and ultimately hopeful new follow-up Straight to Your Town (which took only four years!) offers her shimmering vocal tones (which sound magical even with occasional airy distortion) and a blend of ethereal charm and indie rock fire.
This time Leland and the Silver Wells (a crew of top L.A. musicians, some of which tour with her) take us to realms that range from deeply intimate to topics of grave universal concern. Her expansive, forever intoxicating landscape this time is one where dark, brooding and hypnotic piano ballads (like the karma happens themed opener “What Comes Around”) share hipster playlist potential with jangly romantic pop delights (the cheerful uber-infectious guitar spackled “Love is Blind"), shapeshifting, at first droning and then spunky and funky jams about the impending end of the world (“Won’t Be Long,” which wraps with shards of much-needed hope) and a 60’s-esque vocal harmony driven reflection on climate change (“Take It Down the Line”).
Partially recorded during the pandemic, Leland artfully confronts the harsh realities of our collective anxiety during that time on the lyrical, classical and folk influenced “Stay in Your Lane,” which addresses the blunt fact that “fevers were burned, fortunes were turned” but also offers a whimsical sense of optimism in the line: “If fate takes a hand in this, lucky we’ll be across the continents, we will be free.”
Many of the songs on Straight to Your Town are like that, offering wildly poetic words of gloom and hopelessness, followed by a wondrous sense of escape into a blissful new reality. On the soaring classical rocker “Saving Grace,” she finds “a place to live no more broken wings a brand new way to give far away from here reborn.” She takes a more eternal viewpoint on the seductive, hypnotic image rich closing track, positing that the grave is an open door to the freedom of being alive forever in the endlessness of “The Blue Sea.”
Colorful pandemic timeline production note: Half the album was recorded in a single live session with orchestra and band playing together at the Evergreen Stage (with producer Steve Gregoropoulos of Lavender Diamond), and the other half was recorded entirely online and assembled by Gregoropoulos at his Random Notes Studio. Vocals and mixes were done by Jason Soda (Howlin’ Rain) at Palomino Sound; Jason also plays guitar on several tracks.