[6 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Blue Roses is the performing name taken by Yorkshire, England singer-songwriter Laura Groves. Though, at 21, she’s hardly a child, the ten simply-played, ornately-arranged folk songs on her self-titled debut album sound precocious nonetheless. And, like a precocious child, Blue Roses is alternately impressive, surprising, aloof, and exhausting. Groves is clearly talented, yet not quite to the point as a songwriter or musician where she can completely harness her talent on a consistent basis. Either that or she’s listened to too much Bon Iver and Joanna Newsom.
Those are just two of the many names that come to mind when listening to Blue Roses. Groves herself has cited a multitude of influences, from Joni Mitchell and Lindsey Buckingham to Claude Debussy to Kate Bush and Grizzly Bear. Indeed, in the intimately-played guitar and piano arpeggios, you could trace a line from Blue Roses back through the contemporary British folk tradition that runs from Fairport Convention and Pentange to Kate Rusby and James Yorkston. Then you have the vocal theatrics of late 20th century innovators like Bush and Cocteau Twins. But you have to wonder if the primary thread running through Blue Roses isn’t attached to the current run of critically-acclaimed, musically-eclectic, introspective indie acts such as Newsom, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Grizzly Bear.
This lineage means that Blue Roses the artist and the album both arrived with critical acclaim practically pre-ordained. Imagine the wide-eyed, young yet world-weary singer-songwriter, pining away in the windswept English countryside, recording in cottages and cafes with friends and family. In her music and lyrics she creates her own secret world, not beckoning you to enter so much as leaving the door cracked open, drawing you in with her delicately personal, often beautiful music. If you’re the type who likes to discover an artist, realize you’re spiritually at one with them, and share them like an open secret with like-minded followers via the internet, what’s not to love about Blue Roses?
And, over the first third of Blue Roses at least, Groves’ music backs up the aura surrounding her. On “Greatest Thoughts”, over a prettily-cascading piano melody, she sings, “You are the one that I like best”, and the simple, naïve statement is affecting rather than childish. Groves’ voice, which is generally high-pitched and operatic but also takes in the girlish spark of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler, radiates emothional vulnerability and artistic confidence in equal amounts. When, later, she proclaims, “No one really knows you at all / If you cannot talk of your greatest thoughts”, it’s not only one of her best likes. It’s also a distillation of what’s going to endear her to most of her fans.
Musically, “Cover Your Tracks” is the most effective amalgam of Groves’ stylistic influences. Opening with a traditional fingerpicked figure and a hint of sustained accordion, it gradually builds into something of a hymn as twinkling bells and layered harmonies are added. Here, Blue Roses nearly equals the pastoral, ethereal magic of Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal”. Then, single “I Am Leaving” adds a couple more wrinkles, reigning the arrangement back to a couple of guitar chords and an unexpected, glassy synthesizer, as Groves’ character recounts her decision to leave her family and wander the countryside, a tried-and-true folk music conceit. As a sympathetic harmonica works its way through the melody, the song becomes difficult to resist. You’re just about willing to put your cynicism aside and concede that, yes, Groves really is something more than a sensitive indie flavor of the week.
But, the longer Blue Roses goes on, the less distinctive it becomes and the more Groves’ weaknesses come into relief. “Instant praise is neither expected nor sought,” reads the blurb on Blue Roses’ website, coming across as almost preemptive. True, some of the best tastes are acquired ones. Too many songs on Blue Roses’ second half, though, fail to hold up under repeated listening. The dreamy mid section of “I Wish I…” is nice, but the track carries on much too long. “Doubtful Comforts” establishes a creaky waltz-time mood, then undercuts it by adding a random vinyl hiss effect. “Rebecca”, nine tracks in, actually incorporates the ghost of a backbeat and some electric guitar jangle, but lurches in search of a melody.
Even Groves’ lyrics become suspect. There are bits of sharp, almost witty bits of naked emotion like “I wish I could photograph my moods / Show them to you”, from “I Wish I…” And there are groaners that seem more like transparent gestures, as when Groves asks, “Does anyone love me ‘cause I asked the deep sea / But it wouldn’t speak to me”, on “Does Anyone Love Me Now?” At times it’s as if Groves is trying to fit too many sounds, too many influences and emotions, into a single song. The result is something that sounds pretty and heartfelt, but is all exterior. All structure and no warm, cozy fire inside, to use a metaphor Groves might appreciate.
Groves, like most precocious talents, needs careful treatment. The blog-friendly press bio and focus on intimacy are important, but also run the risk of writing Groves into a corner if her label and management don’t give her some space to grow. When Blue Roses fails, the reasons are all-too-clear, but when it succeeds it sounds like the work of someone who could leave a lasting mark.