Free and legal MP3: Laura Gibson

Song as languorous dream

Laura Gibson

“Tenderness” – Laura Gibson

Framed on top of a sparse but expressive rhythm section—buoyant bass riff meets stark tom-tom beat—“Tenderness” unfolds without haste, as a languorous dream. Gibson sings in a warm, rounded tone, augmented by an almost Holiday-esque ache, suggesting someone at once too shy to speak and yet brave enough to sing. “Don’t wake a swarm of bees beneath me,” she coos, not as fragile as she might sound.

The song supports her both musically and symbolically, employing sturdy sonic structures as almost aural sleight of hand—you don’t notice the droning guitars we get hints of in the background, but you feel them. And the strings: yes, you hear the strings, but really listen to them and feel what they’re doing, too—as for instance the intuited pathos of their downward-sliding notes (1:25 presents an example). In Gibson’s hands, even the straightforward idea of backing vocals feels freighted, unnerving; she asks, in the chorus, “Do you want tenderness?” and the lack of certainty over whether she’s still singing to the man she’d been initially addressing or now singing to herself is intensified by answering background voices so in sync with her idiosyncrasies (it’s all her, after all) that they register as the personification of voices in her own head, manifesting the depth of her interpersonal turmoil. (She proceeds, in the first chorus, from “Kiss your mouth for tenderness” to, in later iterations, “Curse your name for tenderness,” and then, “Break your leg for tenderness”; ouch.)

With its simple sway, “Tenderness” doesn’t break a sweat as much as glue you to your seat. More is revealed with repeated listening. I suggest not losing yourself too much in Gibson’s vocal tone to forget to listen to her phrasing, which can stun. Hear, for instance, how she sings the words “model of” in the lyric “You’re a model of reason,” at 0:47: I can’t quite absorb what she’s doing there or how she’s doing it. Or, listen to the upward swerve she effects in both the second and third verses, at the same moment in the fourth line of each—on the word “men” at 1:46, and “face” at 3:15. These are not moments you are necessarily supposed to notice, which makes noticing them all the more potent. And not all moments here are vocal. Maybe my favorite is the abrupt shutdown of the strings at 1:44, a muted reinforcement of the fierce words that have preceded it:

I’ve been taught, I should wait to be chosen
That I haven’t known love
Until I’ve been destroyed by love

“Tenderness” is a track from Goners, Gibson’s fifth album, which was released on Barsuk Records in October. Gibson’s song “La Grande” was featured on Fingertips in November 2011, and her song “Harmless” made its way into a playlist in May 2016. MP3 via Barsuk, where you can also buy the album, in vinyl, CD, FLAC, or MP3 format. Or go to Bandcamp, where you can listen in full before you buy the digital version.

photo: Timothy O’Connell/Fader

Free and legal MP3: Nels Andrews (wistful, nicely textured, w/ backbone)

A wistful 3/4-time shuffle with mysterious narrative force.

Nels Andrews

“Barroom Bards” – Nels Andrews

A wistful 3/4-time shuffle with mysterious narrative force, effortless melody, and a cumulative intensity. Bearing an attractive vocal and stylistic resemblance to Michael Penn, Andrews sings with the kind of offhand command not as common as it ideally should be—durable, concrete words flow from his mouth on top of crisply arranged textures via a strong descending melody; he’s afraid of neither putting his voice front and center nor of giving us many other agreeable sounds to listen to. I especially like the interplay between the mandolin and the electric guitar, which are not ordinarily instruments that seem to nod too specifically in the direction of one another. Here they both add thoughtfully to the underlying acoustic guitar strum; this feels less like mere accompaniment than orchestrated composition.

And this is another one of those songs that does not reveal itself to me in terms of narrative, no matter how many times I listen. I either can’t figure out who Poor Sweet William is and what he’s done or maybe I just don’t want to; there’s a part of me that craves the spellbinding versus the manifest. Andrews’ clear baritone and his often arresting word choice (I love: “I grew long then cut off my hair”) are all that I need.

“Barroom Bards” is a song from the album Scrimshaw, Andrews’ third, due out this month in the US. The Santa Cruz-based Andrews has for some reason had much more success in Europe than the US to date; the album has been out there since this past spring, and garnered fine notices. Scrimshaw was produced by Todd Sickafoose, who has worked previously with Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, and Anaïs Mitchell, among others. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.

Free and legal MP3: Sunbeam (assured ensemble pop from Portland septet)

Sunbeam is a six-person ensemble, and you can hear the depth of musical contribution in the song’s assured, layered flow.


“Bulldogs” – Sunbeam

By all appearances breezy and unassuming, “Bulldogs” has a rock-solid core. A new band from Portland, Sunbeam is a six-person ensemble, and you can hear the depth of musical contribution in the song’s assured, layered flow. Six people in a band sounds like a lot on the one hand, but many rock songs do indeed feature at least six distinct instrumental sounds: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and percussion. For practical and logistical reasons, most bands make do with three to five members, doubling up on instruments (typically of course the drummer plays percussion too) and/or bringing in outside players.

So the larger band does not require a larger or more complicated sound, but it does change the vibe in elusive but meaningful ways. A song can, as here, feel at once brisk and relaxed, as it makes room not simply for its sounds but for the people who make the sounds. Separating the drummer from the percussionist has a notable impact. I also like the purposeful way the electric guitar is used—not as a background noise producer but as quiet foreground texture. And then there are horns (oops! a seventh sound, and eighth: two horns), which blend into the fabric of the song without any “now listen to the cool horn part” posturing. (Horns are both played here by an outsider, but the band has since added a trumpet player to the fold.) In the end, for all the extraverted appearance of being played by a larger ensemble, “Bulldogs” has an appealing introversion about it, which is embodied in Brian Hall’s sweetly yearning vocal style but plays out too in the restraint of the arrangement and, even, in the recurring wordless vocal/keyboard hook that in the intro sounded like a throwaway but as it returns acquires a lovely centrality, and will probably be the thing that sticks in your head most of all.

“Bulldogs” is fifth on the band’s 10-track debut album, Sunbeam & the Lovely Ghost, which was self-released earlier this month. You can buy it for a price of your choosing at Sunbeam’s Bandcamp page. MP3 via the band.