Laura Gibson’s third album has that sheen of class to it that you’d expect from a sometime Decemberist who hails from the bastion of liberal hipsterdom that is Portland, Oregon. Call it what you want – post-folk, Americana – but from the first note of the title track, La Grande has quality stamped all over it.
That’s not to damn Gibson as a ‘coffee-table’ artist. La Grande is that rare beast – an album that’s undeniably easy to listen to and would sit easily on the radio, but also has a depth: an eerie undertone that suggests that something oddly menacing lurks beneath the surface.
The opening title track swipes the drum sound from Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk and runs with it, demonstrating collaborator Joey Calexico‘s influence right from the start – there’s a dusty, widescreen Americana feel that would fit snugly into any of Calexico’s back catalogue. The occasional bursts of spectral guitar only add to the haunting atmosphere.
For all the startling instrumentation on display here though, it’s Gibson’s voice that’s the real highlight. Beautifully rich and emotional, there are hints of Joanna Newsom at times, and of Annie Clarke of St Vincent at times. Although perhaps the closest comparison would be Manchester’s Liz Green, with who she shares the ability to sound a ’30s jazz singer , especially on the wondrously strange The Rushing Dark.
La Grande also has a startling energy that her previous output may have lacked. The Fire smoulders slowly before bursting into life, creating an Arcade Fire-like heady rush of organ and fiddles. It’s mostly low-key though, as exemplified by the beautiful Skin Warming Skin brings those Newsom comparisons up again, only backed by a melancholic pedal steel guitar instead of a harp, while the muted flute of Crow/Swallow adds pathos to an already affecting song.
This is an album which has obviously been lovingly crafted and arranged – the brilliantly titled Milk-Heavy Pollen-Eyed shuffles along beautifully, ending with the poignant delivery of “I cannot keep myself from stumbling back to you” while there’s even an old-school jazz touch to Lion/Lamb. The closing Feather Lungs makes for a stately closer, multi-tracking Gibson’s voice to eerie effect.
The only fear here is that, amongst the plethora of other singer/songwriters ploughing similar fields, Gibson’s understated, sensitive music may struggle to be heard by its intended audience. If so, that would be a shame as there are moments of beauty here that others will struggle to touch this year.