Graded on a Curve:
Laura Gibson, La Grande

On La Grande, Portland, Oregon’s Laura Gibson expands upon the fragile alt-folk of her previous releases while retaining the qualities that make her such an appealing example of contemporary Americana.

My introduction to Gibson came in the live setting, where she opened for and accompanied a solo show by Decemberist Colin Meloy to fabulous effect. His tour CD Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke also happened to be enriched by Gibson’s strong backing vocals, their presence prompting me to seek out Six White Horses: Blues and Traditionals Vol. 1, an exceptional all covers EP featuring versions of a half-dozen tunes drawn from such acoustic legends as Elizabeth Cotten, Mance Lipscomb and Furry Lewis.

While released by Hush, the Portland-based label that served as the early home of the Decemberists, Six White Horses still felt very much like a homemade document, the kind of recording passed around amongst friends/fans that slowly gains a small, devoted following. From there I tracked down 2006’s If You Come to Greet Me and 2009’s Beasts of Seasons, two full length records that showed Gibson’s talent extending beyond the realms of imaginative interpretation. Both records detailed an ability to sound out-of-time without seeming contrived and combined this with a talent to express vulnerability and loss without registering as maudlin.

Up to this point Gibson’s best attributes have been the unique depth of her voice and the tender strength of her tunes. As vintage as some of her moves can be, and there is a definitely an old (if not necessarily weird) vibe radiating from much of her stuff, this combination places Gibson squarely in the comparatively recent tradition of singer-songwriter. Folk-derived without being homespun or rustic, she’s been compared to names ranging from Karen Dalton, Joanna Newsom, Chan Marshall, Jolie Holland and Gillian Welch, all of which are appropriate to varying degrees. The distinctiveness of her vocals is similar to Newsom, though Gibson is less assertively unusual and more delicate. Also, the core of her music very often evokes the calm of the back porch instead of the rigors of the rock club, and this is certainly remindful of Welch.

La Grande seems immediately calculated to alter the attractive intimacy previously dominant in her work. With its rollicking drums and tense sonic atmosphere, the opening title cut evokes the soundtrack to a cactus-town noir, somewhere between the filmic vistas of later Tom Waits and the sturdy sound-world of Calexico, whose Joey Burns guests here. It’s the kind of song well-suited for getting a room full of appreciative fans right into the spirit of things, but Gibson abruptly and shrewdly changes tactics with “Milk Heavy, Pollen Eyed,” a pretty little down-tempo ditty with achy horns that’s similar to the early work of Nashville titans Lambchop.

In her loose vocal delivery Gibson is reminiscent at times of M. Ward (particularly on the young heart/old soul dichotomy of “Red Moon”), which is well-suited for the broadening of her sound. But she smartly takes this development into areas very specific to her personality. “Lion/Lamb” integrates a jazzy sensibility that rather than heading for the smoldering zone of the late-night bandstand is instead lightly kissed with the always refreshing aura of prime Astrud Gilberto. Additionally, “The Rushing Dark” manages to approximate a bit of uptown bluesy lamentation sourced from some ancient Columbia Records’ 78 without getting at all precious about it. Not for a second does it sound dinky or contrived.

But “Crow Swallow” again redirects her energies into a more contemporary sphere, examining mildly Newsom-like territory with brass accents that recall Zack Condon. I also like the fluid shifts in tempo on the penultimate track “Time is Not,” and the bruised piano-mistress feel of “Feather Lungs,” with its well-applied chamber-pop strings, provides an exceptional closer for an album that’s over far too quickly.

But multiple listens reveal what’s perhaps the most eye opening aspect of La Grande, specifically Gibson’s emergence as a versatile instrumentalist. In addition to arranging duties, she plays a dozen instruments across the course of the album, effectively beginning her movement beyond the frequently constraining aspects of the singer-songwriter genre.

This is a big step, for if Six White Horses revealed her as an fine interpreter ala Dalton, both full-length discs occasionally gave the impression that she was a bit beholden to outside contributors (mainly members of Norfolk & Western, but on Beast of Seasons also contemporary avant-violin great Eyvind Kang) to help lend her records an increased level of dimensionality.

If that was ever indeed the case, it’s no more. On top of multi-instrumentalist duties La Grande makes clear that Gibson’s collaborators were chosen simply for their ability to realize her vision. And she can certainly pick ‘em. In addition to Joey Burns the record hosts Rachel Blumberg and Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists, the pair helping “The Fire” to come off like a land-locked incarnation of that august band playing for bean soup and cornbread at some Saturday night barn dance. Wish I’d been there.

La Grande makes clear that Gibson is gaining confidence and adeptness not just as a writer, singer and player, but as a musician savvy enough to successfully weave all three elements into a whole befitting repeated listens. To be fair she’s always been a fine guitarist, but nimble fingered string pullers aren’t hard to find. And her talent for self-accompaniment was also admirable, but the sort of closeness evoked so well by If You Come to Greet Me and Beasts of Seasons is hard to sustain over time.

Even if that well-calibrated mood of melancholy and mortality could’ve been sustained without fatigue, it would likely have tempted the listener to ask “What else have you got?” Thankfully with Laura Gibson that’s a question one needn’t pose, for La Grande already provides the answer.

Graded on a Curve: A

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