It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for storytellers. This affinity has led me deep into the vaults of folk and blues music, both of which have completely satiated my need to be musically read to. Sadly, in the last handful of decades, the appeal of classic American storytelling has been suspended largely due to the evolution of The Music Industry, now regularly churning out branded musicians and blandly generated lyrics that will easily turn your mind to mush if you attempt to make them mean something. Thankfully, folk music is still a silently thriving genre among my Britney Spears generation, they are a bit underground, but they’re slowly starting to surface.
Laura Gibson, hailing from Portland, OR, retains the signature quirkiness of Pacific Northwestern folk artists like Mirah and Kimya Dawson, but her fourth studio album, La Grande, envelopes classic folk music in a cloak of dreamy mystery that pulls you hypnotically through the album.
Musically, Gibson scatters minor keys throughout her most powerful songs and uses their full scale to her advantage, adding peaks and valleys of sound to the lyric-illustrated world she’s created for us. What caught me was the opening- and title-track of the album, “La Grande.” Right from the start, galloping double-bass drums and a ghostly, intoxicating vocal melody instantly transport you to a place where the fires are high and the mood is dark and mischievous.
When a cold corner stage in the back of the room
Holds a house band carrying an orphan tune
I would swing, I would sway, I would pull my hips
To the sad chorus playing on the overheads
A proud opening track that presents the album with the same adrenaline boost as a thrilling movie teaser and carries the mood of La Grande perfectly. It creates a mysterious but extremely sincere image, which is exactly what Gibson had in mind when she parked her trailer in the forest-covered town of the same name in her home state of Oregon. The town served as a muse and a settlement for Gibson as she wrote and recorded all 15 songs on La Grande from within the cozy walls of her mobile studio trailer. She describes La Grande as a place that “people usually pass through on their way to somewhere else, but which contains a certain gravity, a curious energy.”
Lion/Lamb and Skin, Warming Skin are two of the best songs on the album. Lion/Lamb, a love anthem made La Grande with the addition of a droning guitar, reverbing into obscurity in the background coupled with an upbeat but muffled rhumba and haunting, romantic vocals. Highlights include timpani, a flute in place of backup vocals, and random guitar noise throughout. Trust me, it works.
The latter, Skin, Warming Skin, is a poetic anthem that could fill an arena with its powerful harmonies and simple but prominent instrumentals. A twangy guitar slides in the background as an acoustic guitar plays out a total of four notes, one at a time. An egg shaker and rolling tom provide the first glimpse at percussion, and reveals that it’s only the tip of the pounding iceberg. The rest of the song builds as Gibson’s reflection on the journey of innocence dance atop the notes.
Gibson’s use of percussion impressed me throughout the album. The track, The Fire, returns the energy of La Grande and Skin, Warming Skin with vigor after a couple of low key ballads, and brings in heavy piano which adds a welcome saloon quality to each raucous chorus, chanting “Oh if you’re as hot as the sun/Be not afraid of the fire.” The track’s recanting of risk-taking is buoyantly positive, and a nice addition to a somewhat haunting and, I’ll say it, creepy vibe of some of the more outstanding songs. The bashing snare reminds me of a sound that Mirah’s album, C’mon Miracle got me addicted to. (That’s an album for another day – don’t even get me started.)
As the fourth studio production from Laura Gibson, this appears as a strong album, showing that Gibson has only continued her folk hero stride. La Grande shows the scope of Gibson’s lyrical ability, as her voice was illustrative without being overly dramatic, and still managed to fabricate a sepia-colored world of confident reflection.
I love it when artists aren’t afraid to make listeners a little bit uncomfortable with their themes and sounds, and La Grande was all of that, done well. This album included a level of gloom that I never associated with Laura Gibson, whose sweet voice and literary style always seemed polite even when the subject matter was deep and dark. This album has only strengthened her presence as one of the top folk artists to come out of the Pacific Northwest.
Check out Laura Gibson’s La Grande if you like:
- camping in the forest
- Jolie Holland
- Lana Del Rey with less “West Coast & yayo” and more “hot cocoa & TOMS“
- Regina Spektor
- Janelle Monae at a Decemberists show
If you have a lot of time to kill (or need something to listen to while you do dishes), here is a full performance by Laura Gibson for Seattle’s own KEXP radio station:
All photos snipes from Laura Gibson’s Facebook page.