7 April 2023
Much of my knowledge of California is informed by the pop culture of the late 60s and 70s – a magical place of endless sunshine, creative freedom and flower-power peace. Shana Cleveland’s most recent solo LP ‘Manzanita’ – aptly named after the native Californian tree that resides in her garden – confirms that the rumours might be true.
Written during the pregnancy and birth of her first son, the whole album flows like a meandering road trip in a car full of people that she loves, observing the joy, fear and, in her own words, “supernatural love” for motherhood and the West Coast countryside.
In Mystic Mine, she sings a lulling refrain about the peace she has found since leaving LA, ‘Mystic Mine Lane, Cars rotting away / I feel so relieved to be / Back in the country‘, to the warm and familiar sound of bowed upright bass and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. She indulges this sentiment with an almost cinematic certainty reminiscent of a Spaghetti Western in the sinister melody of Mayonnaise, an ode to American Novelist Richard Brautigan, complete with plinky plonky piano and lap steel guitar: I’ll never leave this state again.
Throughout the album, there is a distinct reverence for the ordinary magic of both giving birth and living amongst nature. Cleveland (who also produced the record) delights in distributing electronic synths and distorted samples among unprocessed instrument recordings, occasional fret buzz and the all-too-familiar sound of piano pedals that could do with some TLC. It’s like flying to outer space from your living room – perhaps an accurate description of fledgling motherhood. In a similar style to that of her contemporaries Meg Baird and Fenne Lily, her soft vocals and gentle delivery allow the rolling emotion of the music to speak ahead of the lyrics.
In the same distinct manner as her surf noir band La Luz, Shana brings a distinct darkness and mystery to an otherwise soothing collection of songs. The opening track, A Ghost, begins innocent albeit melancholy but quickly descends into an ethereal drone and ritualistic on-beat drums, before transforming to the rising siren in Bloom (which ironically feels like ‘Doom’ to me, although I could be mistaken). Ten Hour Drive Through West Coast Disaster sees her momentarily stray from the beautifully folkloric song titles (the track list reads like a poem), to shine light on the Californian tragedy of ever-encroaching wildfires. Read over a whirring Wurlitzer chord sequence, the short but haunting poem is one of the highest streamed tracks on the album, an acknowledgement that love and fear, for our children and our world, come hand in hand. Cattle farms out of horror films / Will you find a way to love this world?
It is a rare thing to be able to listen to an album as many times as I have and be led down a different road each time. Upon first listening, ‘Manzanita’ is a beautiful and sonically satisfyingly album with well-written singles, but the real depth is found in its completeness, in its consuming, hypnotising curiosity and unapologetic declaration of love on a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway.
You were just a little life / Exploding on all sides / Do you love me like I do you?