We’re so used to drama and forcefulness in contemporary music being expressed through loudness that we forget the capacity of a song – and a singer – to be quietly devastating. Too often, those who turn down the volume are just trying to soothe us by playing to our auditory comfort zone, or are taking a breather before the next rave-up.
Diana Darby, however, is different. Her voice is often whispery or calmly recitative, although it is always tuneful. It at times is so soft it risks our inattention, which would be a mistake. It also sometimes can hit a lower, more ominous range, as on I V (intravenous)’s “Buttercup” where she reaches a drone-y sense of gravitas like Nico.
On this album, officially her fourth, she plays electric guitar but uses it more for subdued, sometimes-eerie accompaniment than as a soloing instrument. She produced the record with Mark Linn, and her playing interacts well with David Henry’s lovely cello playing and Dan Dugmore’s delicate pedal steel/banjo work. Together, they flesh out the often-minor-key melodies.
The temptation is to classify Darby as a folk-oriented singer-songwriter, but she’s really more like Eleni Mandell – not in how she sounds so much but in how both use that time-honored style to present very personal, sophisticated and carefully honed lyrics.
The writing is I V (intravenous)’s strongest suit. It’s deceptively simple and direct, but imagistic like haiku. She can be exceptionally spare, as on “Snow Cover Me” or “Spinning,” yet incorporate intense feeling into her well-chosen words.
According to press notes sent with this record, Darby was in a serious auto accident just before embarking on a tour to promote her last record, 2005’s The Magdalene Laundries, and she has subsequently spent time recovering. That may be what the album’s title refers to – there is a kind of restless-sleep in-the-ether quality to the songs.
On “Talking to God,” the subject reproaches her mother for being born: “I was talking to God/And running on the moon/I was counting all the stars/Before I came to you.”
And the song “Heaven” – with the morose open-tuned guitar serving as counterpoint to her almost-childlike voice, is haunting in its telling of an religious mother warning her “unsaved” family of what awaits them in death. (It’s not heaven.) It’s like a Flannery O’Connor story.
One is unsure why Darby, who has been making records since 2000, has yet to find the larger devoted audience she deserves, although her health issues probably set her back. But she’s back now, and her songs demand utmost attention. They’re not instant grabbers, but they mesmerize.
(This originally ran in http://www.blurt-online.com on 1-15-13)