Graded on a Curve: Marian McLaughlin, Spirit House

Based in Washington, DC, Marian McLaughlin is a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter specializing in progressively inclined indie/chamber folk; well-versed in string technique and keen on boundary-pushing collaboration, her music is a multifaceted pleasure. Possessing a slim discography detailing a growing relationship with double bassist-arranger Ethan Foote, McLaughlin’s second full-length Spirit House arrives on CD September 23rd. Due to the frustrations of mobility certain to occur during this week’s papal visit to the Nation’s Capital, her record release show at the Logan Fringe Arts Space has been moved to November 21st.

Marian McLaughlin’s acumen on guitar is considerable. One need only listen to understand, but her background of master classes with Larry Snitzler, a pupil and friend to cornerstone of the classical axe Andrés Segovia, is worthy of note. Additionally, McLaughlin was one of six chosen by the Bethesda, MD arts center Strathmore for their 2014-15 Artist in Residence program.

Live performance figures prominently in her approach; running the gamut from house shows to events in larger venues, she’s warmed up the room for Ryley Walker, Daniel Bachman, Marissa Nadler, Arborea, Six Organs of Admittance, and others, but her largest audience surely came via NPR’s online shindig Tiny Desk Concert in June of 2014.

In his introduction to the 3-song set, Tiny Desk producer/host Bob Boilen praises her as a unique musician, though he does provide context by citing similarities to Joanna Newsom and Diane Cluck. These are apt comparisons; as said, McLaughlin impacts the ear as a direct descendant/exponent of last decade’s blossoming of indie folk, and with special emphasis on the side of the scene promoted by periodicals such as Arthur and Galactic Zoo Dossier.

To elaborate, fans of the ‘60s-‘70s artists awarded the distinction of “Astral Folk Goddesses” (by Galactic Zoo Dossier) and’04’s The Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (issued through Arthur Mag’s Bastet imprint) are quite likely to find McLaughlin to their liking. She debuted last year with Dérive, an 8-song effort (still available on LP) that combined solo pieces with tandem excursions utilizing a tight-knit handful of collaborators.

The album’s title is inspired by Situationist Guy Debord’s concept of “dérive,” whereupon a person undertakes an unplanned course that’s subconsciously shaped by the environment of the journey, “with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.” Dérives also play a part in McLaughlin’s working method; she writes intuitively, relying on stream of consciousness and the guidance of instrument and idea.

It’s a system extending to her follow-up Spirit House, though she enlarges the number of contributors to eleven including violinists Nicholas Montopoli and Zachariah Matteson, violist Karl Mitze and cellist Geoff Manyin, collectively known as the Invoke String Quartet. In the process Ethan Foote’s role as instrumentalist, producer, and arranger is enriched considerably.

While this broadening of the aural landscape is a major component in opener “Even Magic Falters,” the initial moments feature just McLaughlin’s guitar and a light accent of cymbal. Her voice soon enters, intoning confidently with a dark undercurrent and getting highlighted by percussion and mood-enhancing strings, though the most striking aspect of the seven minute piece is the brief upticks in tempo augmented by the regality of horns and the added heft of electric guitar.

Individuals plying their trade in the indie folk field can easily fall victim to employing smallness of scale as a crutch, but it’s quickly apparent this isn’t McLaughlin’s bugaboo. In fact, some might assess the scenery as a tad too ornate. Ultimately Spirit House isn’t highfalutin but rather mystical as referenced in the song’s title; the lyrics mention both Merlin (“from Arthurian legend”) and Gandalf (from the many, many chapters of Tolkien), so those allergic to fantasy lit-themed psych-folk have been given fair warning.

Having purchased and shelved a platter by the ‘60s band Gandalf, this writer is frankly in no position to complain. Helping matters greatly is diversity; there’s the pleasing triangle of voice, nylon guitar, and string section constituting “Your Bower,” the atmosphere assuredly uniting the chamber and the meadow, but radiating a markedly different temperament is “Kapunkah,” a jaunty (indeed, downright danceable) number drawing upon McLaughlin’s trip to Thailand.

With about a minute left, “Kapunkah” slyly incorporates a sorta ‘50s pop vibe that’s mighty appealing, while the trad-Brit-folk trappings of “Ocean” are widened substantially by Foote’s arrangement of strings and brass. And as the milieu crescendos it takes on a medieval air, McLaughlin’s picking and vocalizing shining throughout.

“Calm Canary of the Arctic Sea” delivers another turn, clarinet and trombone emerging at the outset. The effect is carnival-like but restrained, and its art-pop tendencies proceed into a baroque zone that fleetingly tangles with the celestial before taking a bold culminating plunge into the symphonic. That’s a lot of traveling; “Fourth Son” is positively scaled back by association, but Spirit House loses nothing in the transition, instead gaining an exemplary specimen of pure chamber-folk.

Impressively, the more structurally ambitious cuts attain their stature naturally, lacking in any superficial dolling-up. Clearly comfortable in these situations, McLaughlin continues to excel in trimmer scenarios a la standout “Alexander,” which pairs her with the warmth of Foote’s double bass. Spirit House’s progression is a bit less psych-tinged than its predecessor, though said quality does creep into “Will-o-the-wisp,” the track gravitating nearer the vicinity of Dérive’s tougher entries.

However, where the prior outing’s “Heavier-than-air” brought Cat Power to mind, “Will-o-the-wisp” seems descended from ‘70s folk-rock, again of a decidedly Brit hue. And the uptempo slice of local biography, “Legend of the Neighborhood” detours yet again, exploring an angle somewhat reminiscent of mainstream pop-rock, the aura significantly accentuated by a smoldering sax break straight from the heart of the ‘80s.

It’s a risky but successful proposition, offering contrast to the general indie folk climes anchoring the disc; the wonderful solo showcase “Paint-chipped Windowsill” lends the CD its finale. Whether she’s singing about wizards or letting Foote integrate a smidge of Yacht Rock into the equation, Marian McLaughlin is plainly disinclined toward calculated moderation. Fortified by superb vocals and playing, Spirit House dabbles in extremes and basks on the fringes while being consistently accessible.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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