Delicate, fragile and heartfelt: just three of the words that could be used to describe Laura Gibson's new album. While La Grande's ten songs occasionally sound muddled with an array of musical ideas, there's no doubting that her third solo record is accomplished in its execution.
Named after a town in her native Oregon, there's a sense of nostalgia that seeps through the material, along with affection for the forested landscape of the area. It's difficult to pinpoint quite what Gibson's vision for the record is at times, with some songs sounding like they've been unearthed from old acetate recordings ('The Rushing Dark'), while others sound very contemporary ('La Grande'). This may well be a nod to the diverse geography of Oregon but it does mean that there's a consistency that's lacking, with the overall experience feeling disorientating at times as the album meanders off in a direction you're not expecting.
Vocally Gibson's performance is flawless, sounding similar to artists like Joanna Newsom; she projects a world weary but hopeful voice beyond her years. Her use of multiple vocal parts also creates a haunting atmosphere. For example 'Skin, Warming Skin' moves from a fragile solitary voice to a more choral section (reminiscent of Florence Welch) and then to sections where two or more very different vocal performances echo each other in tandem. Gibson's voice is perhaps most compelling in her rare less contemplative moments, where she sounds more comfortable. Something she possibly even acknowledges herself; "We'll follow every song you sing, oh they'll sparkle like a wedding ring", on the standout organ drenched track 'The Fire'.
Musically, despite much studio trickery that Gibson oversaw herself, this is a traditional folk record that predominantly puts guitar melodies at the heart of each song. One of two notable exceptions is closer 'Feather Lungs', which utilises a sedate piano to create a melancholy mood. While there are many musical flourishes to create the nostalgic atmosphere, instruments like the pump organ or vibraphone don't overpower the songs. Neither do the notable guests that pop up during this relatively brief record. The Decemberists' Nate Query and Jenny Conlee are just two of the contributors but Gibson remains the focus of your attention, while this ensemble cast get on with their parts in the background.
And yet, despite enjoying the experience, I wanted to like La Grande more than I actually did. Maybe it's because my points of reference don't align with Gibson's; maybe it's because her Oregon heritage is so closely linked with the record that it informs but also alienates. Possibly, it's just that the album takes occasional unexpected turns that distract you from the overall picture. It's an album that deserves to be heard for lyrics like; "Cutting my knees on the razor wire, just to bathe in the river of desire" ('Time Is Not') but it won't be Gibson's crowning achievement, which is surely still to come.
'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.