wears the trousers magazine

laura gibson & ethan rose: bridge carols (2010)
February 9, 2010, 9:05 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,

Laura Gibson & Ethan Rose
Bridge Carols •••½
Holocene Music

“Where have you gone my pilot star?” asks Laura Gibson on Bridge Carols, her new collaboration with fellow Portland musician Ethan Rose, but it’s hard to imagine that the singer behind last year’s sublimely beautiful Beasts Of Seasons could ever lose sight of her guiding light. Assured in its self-knowledge, that album reflected the concerns of a precarious old-soul about to turn thirty noticing lichen growing on gravestones where before there had only been unfamiliar names. Life’s depth was explored with a short-story writer’s sense of the whole word being contained in the miniaturised version of the moment. With evocations of great American writers like Hoffman and Munro in her work, Gibson seems very much at home with words, an impression which makes Bridge Carols all the more interesting for its shared mindset with Rose, whose previous work has often been shorn of conventional language.

It’s either a gracious moment of listener familiarisation or pretentious posturing to call your opening track ‘Introductions’ but in this case the faint choral, strings and tentative piano melodies over which Gibson mouths a few hard to place words and half-formed phrases does indeed set the scene for what’s to follow. It’s a spiritual seduction of the gentlest kind, with no rushed intentions or misplaced motives. You will either sigh with immediate soul-touched pleasure or scratch your head at the lack of anything recognisable, and that reaction will probably signify how you find the rest of the album. Working like a librarian or a curator of her own un-fruited idea impulses, Gibson raided her notebooks for spark-like phrases and verbal pictures, which were initially sung over the most ambient of Rose-created backing tracks. Once the musical landscape of each track was discovered, Gibson returned to her initial phrasing and set them against what she heard. The effect is to create something coherent, where Gibson’s voice is another instrumental tool in creating the overall picture. It is a meeting of two very different approaches to songwriting.

The building misty dawn rise of ‘Old Waters’ finds the season-withered bones of the narrator emerging from below the dark gloom of a moorland lake, haunted by the loss of something. The fragmentary words of the water-bound voice are lost forever when horn-like keys build in triplicate to whisk your attention away from whatever it is that has called you here; odd and eerie. ‘Younger’ sounds more conventionally song-like, illuminating dreams of childhood freedom accompanied throughout by a metallic bracelet-style rattle. A lazy jazz saxophone almost threatens to root it in a musical tradition, but the component parts loosen themselves from any attempt at obvious definition. The delicate acoustic guitar, over which she sings about dreams of being a horse, a beast of the fields or a “lovely, lovely animal”, battles off a rising white noise and distant church bells ringing long-forgotten hymns.

Like something out of the BBC Sound Effects Workshop in the early ’80s, it’s a suitably sci-fi space-take that signals the beginning of ‘Borealis, Borealis’. Black northern skies are evoked as sorrow “burns as red as flame”; it’s full of quiet passion and heart-plucked strings, water dropping from the roof of an echoing cave, and all the small-making natural beauty of the vast, vibrant heavens. Gibson promises to sing “communion songs”, and in a way that is what this whole album is about; communion not only between herself and Rose, but with each other’s respective audiences who, through this meeting, might access unfamiliar songwriting traditions. It’s on ‘Leaving & Believing’ that the tapestry-weaved lyrics familiar to Gibson’s solo work are most on display. Here, pieces get scattered, blankets get stitched and the audio experimentation is minimalised, the fading melodic ambience serving to create a feeling of landscape, a lyricist if not lost then small against the vastness of the natural canvas. It frequently feels as if Gibson senses her task is to find the words to pinpoint those moments where life transcends its mundane flesh-bound parts to grasp at something indefinably bigger. Like the job of the poet, it’s a monumental task for one person to undertake.

Sleigh bells signal the arrival of ‘Glocken’, growing nearer and then fading, nearer then fading, as a backwards whistling birdsong rhythmically creeps Clanger-like to a random church Calypso drum that threatens but never really gets going. The oddness is so marked and peculiar but it has a childlike innocence that never lets it appear too knowing. In that respect it fits with the whole mood of the album, which feels refreshingly free of cynicism and full of wonder at the worlds the two artists can create. Gibson’s voice on the closing ‘O Frailty’ sounds as if it has been lifted from a decade-distant wax cylinder recording, or maybe a saggy-spooled audio cassette from a family sing-song at a time before some much loved relatives breathed their last. Fragile and distant, it’s the sound of memory-drunk melancholia at the passing years.

Together, Gibson and Rose have produced a challenging piece of work that, despite being hard at times to decipher, feels rich with meaning. As a tentative recording of modest unity that never has to shout about its many intelligent charms, Bridge Carols has a unique allure that deserves to be recognised.

Martyn Clayton
UK release date: 09/02/10; www.myspace.com/lauragibson


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