Friday, February 19, 2010

Laura Gibson & Ethan Rose

Bridge Carols (Holocene Records, 02.2010)

For: Lau Nau, Belong, Kria Brekkan

Byline: Gorgeous vocal improvisations and pastoral soundscapes that hit and then miss, and then hit again.

This is one of those projects that I really wanted to work. Being a long-standing fan of Laura Gibson (her 2009 release Beast of Seasons was covered on the TOME) and her love affair with SLC, and a newly won over fan of Ethan Rose (his contributions to Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park are truly breath-taking), I was in full favor of this musical dream-team. The project's stated idea was to tackle musical terrain that was foreign to each artist. Ethan Rose's musical output thus far has been largely neo-classical pieces composed around sample-based loops of antique instruments and electronic soundscapes that have a random, almost aleatoric nature to them. Laura Gibson plays gentle acoustic songs with a gorgeous little voice in the vein of many of her Portland, Hush Records peers. Laura's vocal contributions to Bridge Carols are largely improvised or ruminations on forgotten phrases found in old notebooks, quaint phrases that until now never saw the light of day. Her vocal contributions were recorded everywhere from basements, to fields, to friend's houses and then handed over to Ethan Rose to put them in some sort of context.

Perhaps, it is Rose's career-long avoidance of wordless music that makes him treat Gibson's voice with such austerity. Ethan treats Laura's impressionistic meanderings and improvised wordless melodies either as the songs centrepiece or in the way he would any other instrument. Vocal coos come floating out of the ether, brightening the corners of a buzzing electronic soundscape, matching the ethereal plucked acoustic guitars and music-box like frailty of struck keys. This compositional framework works well for about 60% of the album, however, when Ethan puts the lyrical thrust of the album back in Laura's hands, the album begins to falter a little bit. This is not to say that Laura does not have an incredible voice or is a fantastic songwriter, when Laura has the show, however, we can see how limiting vocal improvisations can be even for the most skilled of vocalists. Thrust into the spotlight her voice sounds naked without the overlays of warm instrumentation piled on as fraternal equals; we can actually hear Laura's mind working, trying to find a fitting coda for "old waters have carried me here". This is experimentation in it's truest sense, two musicians from different backgrounds exploring sonic pallates, and as there is going to be some friction, some chafing of ideas. But, when these ideas work, and they often do, it is even more breathtaking.

Played as background music, this album is utterly sublime, closer listening reveal unintended beauties but also reveals the sometimes grating process of experimentation. Perhaps the "and" is a bit too strong for this collaboration and guided things a little bit too close to the script. If I could rename this it would be "Ethan Rose with Laura Gibson present Bridge Carols". There, that would a bit more workable.

Did I mention Peter Broderick shows up to play strings on a few songs? That guy is a gem.

Ryan H.

From Paranoid Park

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