Maybe it’s the changing of the seasons that’s making it unusually difficult for me to cozy up to the latest album by Northern California songwriter Mariee Sioux. Sioux’s music – a chimerical fusion of Native American mysticism and West Coast psychedelia – seems tailor-made for those times when people are at their most composed and the weather pushes back on spontaneous fits of energy: sunrise, sunset, and pretty much any time when the temperature falls below 50 degrees. The Boston area has been blessed as of late with a summer-like climate, and listening to Sioux’s disarmingly tender folk feels like a harsh regression into the doldrums of winter, circa early February.
I realize that this is a completely unfair platform on which to be judging an artist, and I intend no hyperbole in my admittance of being wracked with guilt over it. Mariee Sioux is, it should be known, an incredibly gifted musician, and her surrealist finger-picked lamentations possess the kind of ethereal and saturnine qualities that have always made me a patron of music categorized as “ambient.” Her music simultaneously references the Laurel Canyon stylings of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young while also drawing comparisons to the dream pop of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and fellow Nevada City native Joanna Newsom.
On Gift for the End, Sioux’s second proper LP, all of the aforementioned influences coalesce into an admittedly gorgeous display of fragility and tenderness that unfurls over 40 minutes of adroit acoustic guitar playing and diaphanous vocals. It’s indisputably lovely music, but nearly anesthetizes you too with its unrelenting desire to pacify.
Much like Argentinian songwriter Juana Molina, Mariee Sioux’s aesthetic is one of understatement, grace, and subtlety. Nearly devoid of percussion but packed with wispy vocals and nimble acoustic guitar patterns, these songs champion gossamer textures and atmospheres where others might be tempted to bludgeon the listener with the zealous melodies and oppressive rhythms of pop music. Sioux’s ability to pull off this move with such dash brings about Gift for the End’s biggest conundrum: Is this simply just too much of a good thing?
Indeed, tracks like “Homeopathic,” “Old Magic,” and “Icarus Eye” captivate with their lush arrangements and undulating moods, but the melodic content is so repressed and the rhythmic variation so stifled that the songs quickly begin to bleed together. Throw in some warped lyrical imagery à la Neko Case on tracks like “Swimming Through Stone,” (“So I’ll rest my weary head / between the egrets’ beaks / so I can hear you sing the salmon eggs to sleep”) and you’ve got the sonic equivalent of what it feels like in the hours following a dose of Nyquil.
To her credit, Sioux does occasionally inject these tunes with experimentation – “White Fanged Foreverness” sports synthesizers and a Mellotron that brings about an Eno meets solo Eddie Vedder vibe, and “Twin Song” exudes imagery of a southwestern wayfarer thanks to some light electric guitar riffs and flanger-affected keyboards. Closing cut “Tule” might be the dreamiest that real (and fake) flutes have ever sounded outside of an orchestra.
For fans of dream-folkies like Marissa Nadler and Sharon Van Etten, Mariee Sioux is a welcome addition to the genre, and one whose music is well suited to those months after daylight savings time has ended. The depth of Sioux’s technical skill is palpable and worth the listen. If she can broaden the emotional arc of her performance accordingly and pay the same heed to melody that she does ambience, we’ll have another formidable presence making headlines.