On La Grande, Portland, Oregon’s Laura Gibson expands upon the fragile alt-folk of her previous releases while retaining the qualities that make her such an appealing example of contemporary Americana.
My introduction to Gibson came in the live setting, where she opened for and accompanied a solo show by Decemberist Colin Meloy to fabulous effect. His tour CD Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke also happened to be enriched by Gibson’s strong backing vocals, their presence prompting me to seek out Six White Horses: Blues and Traditionals Vol. 1, an exceptional all covers EP featuring versions of a half-dozen tunes drawn from such acoustic legends as Elizabeth Cotten, Mance Lipscomb and Furry Lewis. While released by Hush, the Portland-based label that served as the early home of the Decemberists, Six White Horses still felt very much like a homemade document, the kind of recording passed around amongst friends/fans that slowly gains a small, devoted following. From there I tracked down 2006’s If You Come to Greet Me and 2009’s Beasts of Seasons, two full length records that showed Gibson’s talent extending beyond the realms of imaginative interpretation. Both records detailed an ability to sound out-of-time without seeming contrived and combined this with a talent to express vulnerability and loss without registering as maudlin.
Up to this point Gibson’s best attributes have been the unique depth of her voice and the tender strength of her tunes. As vintage as some of her moves can be, and there is a definitely an old (if not necessarily weird) vibe radiating from much of her stuff, this combination places Gibson squarely in the comparatively recent tradition of singer-songwriter. Folk-derived without being homespun or rustic, she’s been compared to names ranging from Karen Dalton, Joanna Newsom, Chan Marshall, Jolie Holland and Gillian Welch, all of which are appropriate to varying degrees. The distinctiveness of her vocals is similar to Newsom, though Gibson is less assertively unusual and more delicate. Also, the core of her music very often evokes the calm of the back porch instead of the rigors of the rock club, and this is certainly remindful of Welch.
La Grande seems immediately calculated to alter the attractive intimacy previously dominant in her work. With its rollicking drums and tense sonic atmosphere, the opening title cut evokes the soundtrack to a cactus-town noir, somewhere between the filmic vistas of later Tom Waits and the sturdy sound-world of Calexico, whose Joey Burns guests here. It’s the kind of song well-suited for getting a room full of appreciative fans right into the spirit of things, but Gibson abruptly and shrewdly changes tactics with “Milk Heavy, Pollen Eyed”, a pretty little down-tempo ditty with achy horns that’s similar to the early work of Nashville titans Lambchop.
In her loose vocal delivery Gibson is reminiscent at times of M. Ward (particularly on the young heart/old soul dichotomy of “Red Moon”), which is well-suited for the broadening of her sound. But she smartly takes this development into areas very specific to her personality. “Lion/Lamb” integrates a jazzy sensibility that rather than heading for the smoldering zone of the late-night bandstand is instead lightly kissed with the always refreshing aura of prime Astrud Gilberto. Additionally, “The Rushing Dark” manages to approximate a bit of uptown bluesy lamentation sourced from some ancient Columbia Records’ 78 without getting at all precious about it. Not for a second does it sound dinky or contrived. But “Crow Swallow” again redirects her energies into a more contemporary sphere, examining mildly Newsom-like territory with brass accents that recall Zack Condon. I also like the fluid shifts in tempo on the penultimate track “Time is Not”, and the bruised piano-mistress feel of “Feather Lungs”, with its well-applied chamber-pop strings, provides an exceptional closer for an album that’s over far too quickly.
But multiple listens reveal what’s perhaps the most eye opening aspect of La Grande, specifically Gibson’s emergence as a versatile instrumentalist. In addition to arranging duties, she plays a dozen instruments across the course of the album, effectively beginning her movement beyond the frequently constraining aspects of the singer-songwriter genre. This is a big step, for if Six White Horses revealed her as an fine interpreter ala Dalton, both full-length discs occasionally gave the impression that she was a bit beholden to outside contributors (mainly members of Norfolk & Western, but on Beast of Seasons also contemporary avant-violin great Eyvind Kang) to help lend her records an increased level of dimensionality. If that was ever indeed the case, it’s no more. On top of multi-instrumentalist duties La Grande makes clear that Gibson’s collaborators were chosen simply for their ability to realize her vision. And she can certainly pick ‘em. In addition to Joey Burns the record hosts Rachel Blumberg and Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists, the pair helping “The Fire” to come off like a land-locked incarnation of that august band playing for bean soup and cornbread at some Saturday night barn dance. Wish I’d been there.La Grande makes clear that Gibson is gaining confidence and adeptness not just as a writer, singer and player, but as a musician savvy enough to successfully weave all three elements into a whole befitting repeated listens. To be fair she’s always been a fine guitarist, but nimble fingered string pullers aren’t hard to find. And her talent for self-accompaniment was also admirable, but the sort of closeness evoked so well by If You Come to Greet Me and Beasts of Seasons is hard to sustain over time. Even if that well-calibrated mood of melancholy and mortality could’ve been sustained without fatigue, it would likely have tempted the listener to ask “What else have you got?” Thankfully with Laura Gibson that’s a question one needn’t pose, for La Grande already provides the answer.
It’s nice to know that no matter how strong the possible (hell! probable) impulse toward contemporaneousness lurking inside the furrowed folds of the current rock scene, that we have bands like The Gaye Blades intermittently popping up to disrupt the tyranny of being up to date.
Featuring members of such esteemed junk rock heavyweights as Black Lips, Gentleman Jesse and his Men and The Carbonas, The Gaye Blades can perhaps register as a bit of a lark. Side bands have a tendency to do that, particularly when they lean toward a template of boisterous party-throttling instead of the urge to either break new ground or reinforce the prevailing streams of the time.
And that’s how it should be. The allure of the one-off record has generally been about shoving aside expectations and getting back to the basics of what I like to call Pure Throwing Down. And this applies equally to the rumbles from undeniably star-studded affairs as it does to the doing it for the sheer hell of it discographical asides issued by more underground figures. Actually, after giving it some consideration, it’s in the low-expectation/high performance zone of the side band that household names and comparatively unheralded toilers can join together in celebration of the goodness inherent in rock’s economy of scale. It’s where the sweet studio screwery of the Hopkins Cooder Wyman Jagger Watts Jamming with Edward or the bruising Stoogeoid mess-around of the Moore Shelley Fleming Hell Dim Stars material rubs shoulders with The Gaye Blades and their Norton label mates The Ding-Dongs (comprised of neo-garage heavy-hitter Mark Sultan and Canadian rockabilly manic Bloodshot Bill, dontcha know).
If operational shoulder rubbing between these four examples is extant (and I certainly think it is) then it’s also with the Blades and the Dongs that we can glimpse some deeply conspiratorial, in fact almost coital, communion. For in both groups (the Blades a kinetic if appealingly featherweight four-piece, the Dongs a stripped down and dirty duo) there is a determined predilection for plundering the essence of uncut ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll exaltedness. This is getting to be something of a trend (especially if any revived rock moves of a pre-Beatles vintage are equated with “the 1950s”) and I can’t say I’m the slightest bit displeased. I mean, who would’ve thought that doo-wop, Spector, ‘billy and horn-honking R&B would become a small but viable part of the current u-ground state of affairs, much less one with an actually hip cadre of fans? Not me, but I’m as pleased as a punch drunk Shriner that I can revel in this rich mulch instead of sitting on a stump contemplating the contempo relevance of dubstep. Zing!
And if that mention of hipness worries you (shiver me timbers!), please relax. The main attribute keeping this batch of backward-looking upstarts from falling into the pits of style over substance (thus far) is the endeavor of getting right down to brass tacks on cheap instruments in practice spaces over all and sundry. That and a sincere dedication to songs. This naturally helps heaps in not only not sounding like this month’s flavor, but also in not sounding like the other bands within their similar sonic temperament.
For instance, The Gaye Blades differ significantly from The Ding-Dongs in concept and execution. Where the latter actually manage to sound like a long-lost and loopy slab of throbbing rockabilly meat, the former come off like a bunch of smart teens who while out searching for musical inspiration ended up unsuspectingly waylaid by somebody’s ultra-cool uncle’s record collection, the kids opportunistically absorbing wholesale moves and then applying them to a handful of brilliantly basic songs in the admirable attempt to win their high school’s battle of the bands. Did they do it? Well, if not the damned thing was rigged.
As should be obvious, The Gaye Blades self-titled 10-song LP is very much cut from Ramones-like cloth, though in concept not in execution, being much sunnier in disposition, though by no means oppressively so. One more time: this is ‘50s inflected power-popish (read: not pop-punkish) R&R with harmonies and hooks by the bushel. But unlike the Ding-Dongs, it all sounds just as likely to have been made last week as in the days of 1976. And that’s a fine duality to consider.It may seem like I’ve spent the majority of this review talking around The Gaye Blades instead of about them, and that’s not incorrect. Fact is, bands of this level of simplicity and directness are somewhat resistant to extended analysis. The concept is extremely basic; the songs get down onto disc and it either succeeds or fails or falls somewhere in between. But the context of the concept is always worth a few hundred words. And when the knob is turned way up so that for a few too brief moments everything feels alright in the world, the music shines like a diamond.