A few years ago, researchers at universities in Alberta and Washington state discovered a link between baby talk and classical poetic structures and techniques. By running the seemingly random babble of babies through a program specifically designed to analyze speech patterns, they found broad similarities between it and what we generally consider to be finely crafted art: rhythmic patterns, alliteration and even primitive rhyme were all rampant in the goos, gaas, and gurggles. Their theory was that our aesthetic appreciation of even something as complex as language had simple roots; the patterns we associate with some of our most enlightened, clever thinking is a kind of born-in sense.
Toronto songstress Laura Barrett suggests this kind of link more directly than most. Though both her execution and themes are by no means naive, there is a quality about her music akin to playing a toy of sounds and words. Over top the plunked-out rhythms of her kalimba—an African “thumb piano” whose closest aural relative is probably the xylophone, which also features prominently—Barrett uses deceptively simple wordplay to wrestle with big ideas, alliteratively and deliberately contrasting meanings and moods in subtle ways. The result is something pleasingly off-kilter, as esoterically lush as the astro-farm album cover for Victory Garden, her first full-length.
One of the strengths to Barrett’s winding approach is that her songs tend to resist easy interpretation, as is the case with second song “Consumption”, an early highlight, which rewards repeated listens more with a slow revealing of some of Barrett’s endearing tics than metaphorical clarity. Essentially a meditation on the various substances needed to get through the day, its charms lie in lines like “Load up my recumbent / I gotta get / some mineral water and vitamin cigarettes”. Barrett’s delicate lilt winds the rhythm of that kind of over-literate line—it wouldn’t be hard to do nothing but catalogue her luxurious turns of phrase—around muted horns and the melodic percussion of her kalimba, and the result is something like being caught in a whirlwind in a library, a subdued cacophony of words, images and sounds.
She does occasionally indulge more straightforward structures and techniques—for instance, the kalimba here is mixed with an orchestra of other instruments, though with a particular focus on those that can handle melody and percussion with equal grace—but Barrett is almost always at her best when she’s at her most esoteric, or at least when she’s layering her more untraditional music over lyrics that would seem more clunky if coming from a less able mouth. “Ferryland” is a wistful anti-lovesong, a melancholy lament in the skips of a heartbeat. While her kalimba sets an almost lullaby rhythm, Barrett fights with the pointlessness of writing love songs that will never replace the real thing. Her clever deconstruction is subsumed in lines like “what’s the use in coming up / with nouvelle WORD / to describe the revery / of your toque and tusseled hair” and “oh no, no melody / no matter how sincere / or loaded with metaphor / can force you to appear”, the careful description lending the song a certain air of innocent heartbreak, an adult realization that things can’t always be as we’d hoped.
It’s that kind of a sense that permeates the album, music and lyrics. “To The Stars!” is a childhood dream seen from the other side, Barrett’s soft “what was I supposed to be once I got past the moon?” wailing over lush orchestration like a plea to the people who once told her to reach for the stars. “Chidiya” filters the confusing steps of teenage through a kind of circus aesthetic, the innocence of the mood fighting with some mature, if frustrated feelings.