La Grande sees Portland, OR folksinger Laura Gibson keeping faith with her muse– honed over four studio albums– yet in a more expansive mood. There is still room for otherworldly ballads but also greater variety in tempos, song styles, and instrumentation. Some effects recall her 2010 meditative collaboration with Ethan Rose, Bridge Carols, in their delicate, soft, repetitive layers, but these are equaled by a newfound stridency. The album title references a picturesque transit town in NE Oregon, and much of the content deals with journeys and transitions, with as much forward thinking as reflection.
The percussion-heavy title song opens things with surprising vigor in a kind of Wild West gallop set against the ghostly charm of Gibson’s disembodied vocal. Signaling the variety to come, Gibson then sounds like Ingrid Michaelson’s country cousin on the tender “Milk-Heavy, Pollen Eyed” with lines like “Try as I may to carve my path, I can’t keep myself from stumbling back to you” serving to strengthen the association. It is a simply lovely song, embellished with exquisite clarinet lines from Jilly Coykendall. Gibson the singer and multi-instrumentalist is always at the heart of things but also draws fine support from the ranks of Calexico, The Decemberists, The Dodos, and drummers Rachel Blumberg and Matt Berger.
“Lion/Lamb” is a curiously louche offering that somehow marries a jazzy, tropical beat with all kinds of ethereal, distorted sounds. Both “Skin, Warming Skin”, with its woozy chorus, and the raucous barroom piano and drums of “The Fire” hint at more of a pop-folk direction, though the closer “Feather Lungs” could be a statement about the singer’s delivery as much as a song title. The dreamy “Red Moon” has a dismembered charm, and you could imagine a David Lynch screenplay around Gibson’s fancy to “carry your torch and drink of your poetry.”
While a sense of nostalgia runs through the record — from archaic instrumental sounds and gramophone crackle to Gibson’s own pure vocal distilled through multi-tracking — the sheer craft she brings to blending the old with the new makes listening an altogether rewarding experience.
Essential Tracks: “Milk-Heavy, Pollen Eyed”, “Red Moon”, and “Lion/Lamb”