[15 March 2012]
Upon hearing Laura Gibson’s new album La Grande, I feel I should be strapped to an Oregon Wagon and made to pull it along the Oregon Trail, all 2,000 miles of it, while dispensing fulsome praise of both Laura and La Grande. I should be made to stop in La Grande (pronounced in the American West as “luh grand”), a town apparently just east of the Wallowa Valley, in order to genuflect and thank whatever higher authority comes to mind, for providing the inspiration to Gibson for both the music and title of this incredibly beautiful album. I will then head out, unburdened by my wagon, and seek out the places that the album conjures up in my mind. The reason for this show of contrition is that I had rather pigeonholed Laura as belonging to the long line of talented singer-songwriters that quietly go about their business, honing their craft but never really rising above the crowds.
I was wrong. And how.
I’ve not been to Oregon, I’ve barely been to America, but Gibson has painted such a picture through her music that listening to the album I’m transported to a place of wide expanses of fields, dense, dark forests cackling with the sound of camp fires, prairie huts, one street towns where all the men have beards and the town, en masse, get dressed up for the Sunday visit to the church before returning home for a sing-song around the family piano. A place where “Good night, John Boy” is echoed from house to house. A place of simply lived lives, of community and friendships, of hardship perhaps, but also a place at ease with itself and its position in American life.
Oh, and the album also conjures up images of Hawaii. But more of that later.
Gibson herself has described the town of La Grande as a place “people usually pass through on their way to somewhere else, but which contains a certain gravity, a curious energy.” Meant or not, this quote encapsulates the album. There is gravity on the album that sucks you into its orbit, refusing to let you go and a curious energy sparks through every song. Gibson, then, is our sun. Her music is bright, light, strong, life affirming and life giving. This is evidenced, immediately, in the opening song, the title track of the album. Pounding rockabilly drums, a twang of surf guitar (is this really a singer-songwriter album?) and then the voice comes in. Gentle, but confident, half sung, half spoken, it absolutely works against the rollicking instrumentation. It is the type of opening song that puts the listener in a bit of a quandary.
You don’t want the song to end and yet you can’t wait to hear if the rest of the album can possibly live up to such a start. And, secretly, you worry that it won’t and therefore you’ll feel let down and betrayed and slightly foolish for investing so much hope and excitement into someone you don’t know. Bloody hell Laura, it’s so unfair to ask so much of us with just one song. And then … “Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed” begins. Softly, Gibson coos, “Try as I may to carve my path / I cannot keep myself from stumbling back to you.” Melodic and soulful, the song makes you want to wrap your arms around her, hold her and tell her not to worry. Everything will be OK. “Lion/Lamb” continues in the same vein, the album now beginning to conjure up a score for an imaginary David Lynch film. Oboe or clarinet, I’m not sure which, plays over the same thick bass twang as “Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed”, with some tinkling piano thrown in for good measure, as Gibson’s voice rises and floats through the song. “Skin, Warming Skin” opens with a plaintive steel guitar, as the narrator (is it Gibson?) talks of love and how “Innocence can bow and kiss your forehead” before gently building to the climax, for both the song and the narrator, with the “ooh-oohs” brought about by the physical contact of “Only skin, warming skin”. Luscious is the word, and feeling, that comes to my mind.
“The Rushing Dark” brings back the film score theme with a track that would not be out of place in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou and just like a scene in a Coen Brother film, the next song “Red Moon” takes a left turn into Hawaiian territory with a shimmying beat and talk of palm trees. We return to base with “Crow/Swallow”, with Gibson’s voice accompanied by a finger plucked, almost Latin sounding, acoustic guitar and more unidentified woodwind sounds. “The Fire” picks up the tempo again, with a honky tonk piano, foot stomping, hoe down dancing, rawkus groove, and I’m off swinging my poor wife round our suburban living room, crashing in to the furniture, in danger of waking the kids and annoying the neighbours. Luckily the last two tracks allow us to regain our decorum, and composure, as the pace slackens and Gibson closes the album on a more downbeat tempo, but retaining our attention with tales of “Cutting my knees on the razor wire / Just to bath in the river of desire”, on “Time is Not” and tales of late nights and curtains closing, “Feather Lungs”. Laura Gibson has written an album that moves this way and that, in and out of musical styles, singing about issues of personal longing. More than anything though, it is the gravitational pull of, and to, her Oregon roots that gives this album its heart. It is a truly beautiful album. Now, hitch me up, I’ve a wagon to pull and a message to spread.