James, James, James. I mentioned in my last Blind Taste Test that I find your eclectic music taste confusing at times and I think that has led me to try too hard to think outside the box when I’m recommending music to you.
But often, the place where our tastes intertwine is quite simple. Often, it is the female vocalist, the spare instrumentation, the music for the quiet moments.
There aren’t many better albums that fit that description than Empire Builder by Laura Gibson. She has a unique and mesmerising voice, imbibes her indie-folk with her own intriguing personality, and writes lyrics that range from the mystical to the heartbreaking to the touchingly funny.
‘Damn Sure’ and ‘Caldera, Oregon’ are my two favourites on the album and they show the two sides of Laura’s music – the playful and the serious and sombre. But whether playful on songs like ‘Two Kids’ and ‘Not Harmless’, or serious on songs like the title song and the closer, she is always superb.
I hope you enjoy this album even half as much as I do.
Thank you Fran. And so our quest for consensus continues into yet another Blind Taste Test. I’m liking your thinking behind your choice here, so I’ll try not to be too picky. You’ve rightly suggested the female vocalist with spare instrumentation as a possible winner – I’m sure you have another Laura in mind. First thing to say is the album cover looks very familiar. So I’ve at least seen this before. Have I heard any of it? Let’s find out.
You know I’m not as big on lyrics as you. So don’t expect too much in-depth analysis of the mystical, touching and heart breaking lyrics after a single listen. You also know I often find certain vocal styles quite annoying. The opening ‘The Cause’, the very first song on Empire Builder, certainly does show off Laura’s ‘unique’ voice and I’m sorry to say my gut reaction is one of irritation. This is giving neither the artist nor album a fair chance though so I’m going to get over it and see what else is on offer.
‘Damn Sure’ is next, one you’ve picked as a favourite. The result is more mixed for me. On one hand It’s got a really catchy refrain to it which is a plus and I can immediately see why it’s one of your top picks from the album. On the other, I’m hearing a country influence in the instrumentation which is a bit of a turn off for me. I think I had assumed she was British going into this – she’s not, which means it’s much more genuine, but it’s a bit too American for me. Very much white people eating mom’s cherry pie on the porch, or whatever.
The next song up is another you mention in your intro, ‘Not Harmless’. This one is more rocky/bluesy and I like the beat and the electric guitar playing. There is more contrast across this track than in previous ones, with quieter and louder moments, yet Laura’s gentle voice still breaks through the extra noise. I’d agree with your description of it being playful, the musicians sound like they’re having fun with this one.
More contrast next with ‘Empire Builder’ which you put into the serious category. Laura’s voice is growing on me now, despite that initial reaction. It’s subtle, but she can do plenty with it that it takes a few songs to appreciate. This does something nearly as well as the other Laura does (and also Chloe Foy on ‘Asylum’ for that matter) – essentially a very simple melody sitting over something else less noticeable but more complex, allowing the songcraft to shine through. This absolutely is the one for the quiet moments that you mentioned in your introduction.
The next couple of songs make me think of Chloe Foy again, in her description of her music as ‘cinematic folk’. ‘Five and Thirty’, ‘The Search for Dark Lake’ put a big tick in this box for me. A big contributor to this is the use of strings. In the production, this combination of Laura and her small band, plus string orchestra, makes the songs sound both close and intimate and also massive and cavernous at the same time. No mean feat.
Playful Laura is back on ‘Two Kids’, but not in a good way. That country pedal steel guitar is horrid. This song sounds like it should be on a twee advert for an infuriating online business that wants to sell me the solution to a problem I don’t have, or the godawful royalty free music you can download to put in corporate videos. Maybe it’s adverts’ fault for ruining what should be quite nice music, but I can’t get this image out of my head now.
Thankfully things get back on track from ‘Louis’ onwards. The simple melodies are back and bring a sense of familiarity with them. Not predictable, but definitely cosy. Talking of familiar, I suspected that I might have heard some of this album before. ‘Caldera, Oregon’ is the song I know, and it’s great. That hook on the lazy strings is all the best things about this album distilled into nine notes – so simple yet so effective. The last one is called ‘The Last One’. It has been chosen well to occupy this slot with the slow building of textures over the ‘Hallelujah’ guitar picking.
As we’re in Euros football season it would be appropriate to say this is an album of two halves for me. I’m not over the moon, but I’m not sick as a parrot either. Being serious for just a moment, there is actually much more to like here than not to. The parts I didn’t like produced an immediate reaction from me but hopefully this will be dampened on return listens. Either that or I’ll just skip past ‘Two Kids’. Another intriguing back catalogue to explore. Thank you for making me listen to this album Fran.
Words by Fran Slater and James Spearing