Kaite Welsh listens to Laura Gibson’s latest album and finds her recalling the musical quirks she is best known for but also exploring new territory
“I am not a lamb, I am a lion,” warns Laura Gibson on her third and latest album La Grande. This release shows a steel that belies the gentle, whispering melodies that have won Laura critical acclaim and a cult following. It is more ambitious than her previous effort, Beasts of Seasons (2009), as well as more upbeat, although there is still time for contemplation on the dreamy penultimate track, ‘Time is Not’, where she admits she has worn her burden “like a halo”. Her slightly raspy voice is best suited to those softer tracks, but rollicking country and western tunes like ‘The Fire’ are a welcome and enjoyable departure from her usual style and the title track is positively rambunctious.
Fans of the haunting intimacy of If You Come to Greet Me (2006) will enjoy ‘The Rushing Dark’ and the deliciously-titled second track, ‘Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed’. Dreamily evocative song names are part of the pleasure La Grande delivers: ‘Skin, Warming Skin’ is as tenderly sensuous as the title implies while the album closer ‘Feather Lungs’ has a floating, otherworldly quality, with lyrics to match.
Thanks to Gibson’s whispery, unearthly vocals, comparisons with Joanna Newsom abound and both do indeed share a dreamy, surreal take on the world. However, where Newsom is away with the fairies, Gibson is thoroughly rooted in the earth and her environment. The album has a very primal feel to it, heavily influenced by her native Oregon (the album title is the name of a city in the state) without feeling provincial. Passionate and intense, it is folk without being folksy.
‘La Grande’ is a stomping opener, reflecting the spirit of the Wild West that infuses both the area and the album. And yet it still feels slightly magical, conveying a sense of wonder at all the opportunity this part of the world has traditionally afforded. Gibson is at her most upbeat and powerful here, in a dramatic diversion from the muted, introspective style of her earlier work. Even fans who like her precisely because she is quiet in a world that seems to prefer loud can’t fail to be enchanted by this exploration into new territory.
Slow and gentle is the order of the day for its successor, ‘Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed’. This is the one track that most recalls the musical quirks Gibson is best known for. “For love has got you hanging on my hips,” she croons in this tender ballad. Despite being infused with more of an alt-country feel than we are used to, the track still retains a gentle, old-fashioned quality when Gibson sings: “I cannot keep myself from stumbling back to you.”
‘Lion/Lamb’ is eerie and unearthly, full of muffled chanting and soft shuffling rhythms, while the slow seductiveness of ‘Skin, Warming Skin’ draws us in with its “secrets spun as thin as summer thread”. “It’s only skin, warming skin,” she reminds us, “innocence can bow and kiss your forehead.”
In contrast, ‘The Rushing Dark’ is accompanied by a marching percussion beat and has more of a bluesy Gospel sound – or at least Gibson’s unique take on it – than the folk-country languor of the rest of the album. Partly due to the crackling background, like a new discovery of some old vinyl, it feels like something you could stumble across in a thrift shop and instantly fall in love with. It is this vintage quality -too authentic to be labelled ‘retro’ – that charms and draws in the listener. “My mind may drift from the wall of my skin but I will not wander too far,” she promises us in ‘Crow/Swallow’, a quiet, quirky ballad about exploring one’s roots whilst also enjoying everything the wider world has to offer. It could almost be a reassurance to her listeners that although she is branching out into a bigger, richer sound, it is still the same Laura Gibson.
The country and western influence is at its strongest in ‘The Fire’, a high-energy, boisterous song which revels in the contrast between the fast-paced music and Gibson’s measured vocals. If ever there’s a Gibson song that makes you want to dance around the room, it’s this one.
There is a sense with La Grande that Gibson is spreading her wings. She veers dangerously towards twee at times, such as in the penultimate track ‘Time is Not’, but that is the only dud note she strikes in an album that reveals an increasingly mature musician. Certainly it feels on a larger scale than her earlier efforts, even down to the additional musicians she has drafted in as backup- including some of The Decemberists – but she loses none of her old intimate charm in the translation. La Grande showcases the strength behind the lilting voice, “tearing your grace with every tooth and claw.”