The Shins

Port of Morrow
Aural Apothecary

It’s been five long years since James Mercer and his band the Shins released the Grammy-nominated Wincing the Night Away. In those intervening years Mercer (that’s Mister Shins to you) divorced his longtime band mates and set off on numerous musical adventures. Those  took him all over the world, real and conceptual. With the release of Port of Morrow, we find James Mercer exploring a deeper sense of introspection. His insights are now more resonant and mature. And now he is armed with a new batch of songs and a new bunch of Shins to help him play them live. Cool, right?

New Shins

So in today’s lesson, students, we are going to study the fine art of the musical hook. What is a hook you may ask? In music, a hook is anything that drags you kicking and screaming into a song. Hence the fish allusion. You’ve been getting reeled in by hooks since your parents were kids. Hell, even “Silent Night” has a hook. Several of them actually. First one is “all is calm.” Second one is “sleep in heavenly peace.” There you go.

A hook is usually some unexpected turn in the music of a song. It might be an instrumental phrase, a lead line, a riff. Or it might be some slight change of course in the melodic bearing of a song (ala “Silent Night”). A hook can be a little thing, but if it’s a good little hook, you’re going to get caught all the same.

In the broad scheme of things, the whole era of the popular song has been dominated by hooks. The early blues and the ragtime jazz days of the early 20th century. The smooth days of big band jazz. All the Cole Porter/Irving Berlin standards and everything in rock ever since. Hooks.

I guess when you get right down to it: all music is based on hooks. You are attracted to your favorite songs or pieces of music because of them. You recognize them instantly because of them. Hooks. Beethoven’s Fifth: Dun Dun Da Dun. Hook.

A lot of hooks come in the chorus, the memorable part. Sometimes you’ll find them in the bridge. Guys like Thom Yorke have the ability to write songs with endless chains of them. That’s a real gift. Still, think of your five favorite songs. The guess is that you can pretty much sing the lines you love the most from each of them. Hooks, baby.

And why are we investigating the Art of the Hook today? Well, I’ll tell you why. James Mercer, that’s why. That guy throws out some serious hookage. Unique. Memorable. When you recognize a song as an old friend the second time you hear it in your life, you’re getting hauled onto somebody’s boat. In this case it’s James Mercer’s and it’s a forty minute tour aboard the tiny ship, the Shins.

James Mercer

James Mercer excels in two aspects of musical hookery. He has the intrinsic ability to craft instantly familiar songs, siphoning bits of melodies and themes from hundreds of sources that went before, stretching back over the preceding forty or fifty years. He is also very strong at creating unexpected, subtly sumptuous rhapsodies at the very moment the momentum of one of his familiar themes begins to lag. That sort of artistic intuition is quite rare, and it’s a songwriting strength for Mercer.

The first cut among the ten found here, “The Rifle’s Spiral” has a momentum and feel very similar to Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” A sense of urgency pervades as the driving beat (James did his own drumming on this track) pushes the arrangement forward.

Mercer’s lyrical perspective reflects a certain quiet desperation: “You pour your life down the rifle’s spiral.”  When he sings that line, it sounds as if the subject is descending down a rabbit hole of some terrible consequence. Musically, the melodic hook is pretty instantaneous with a neat little minor third ascending interval in the opening line. You will like and remember that interval. It’s inevitable.

The segue section, not really a chorus, is memorable for it’s majestic musical architecture, and the careful precision of the instrumentation. Lyrically, one can almost put together a story, though vital details seem hard to decipher in the telling. It is possible that Mercer is addressing the song to an unborn child regarding the experience of being born, though that interpretation could be far from the mark.

The first single off the album, “Simple Song,” is already receiving mainstream airplay, so perhaps this is the song to break the Shins to the public at large–out of the indie eddy and into the mainstream. Who’s to say?

Janet Weiss

Guest drummer Janet Weiss provides intense Moonian drum volleys to the lurching power-chords of the intro, which sound like an amalgamation of Tommy-era Who condensed with a Phil Spector Latin feel reminiscent of “He’s a Rebel” or “Spanish Harlem.” The verse, with James intoning low resonant notes (before leaping an octave to the customary upper register in the second verse), could be something you might hear from Beck’s Guero period. This is all part of Mercer’s knack for the “gee, I’ve heard this somewhere before” hook.

The bridge is where his ability with a melodic hook takes over–with the line “I know that things can really get rough/When you go it alone.” That section will be running through your mind for a while after you hear it, especially the “a-low-oon” melisma (I’m still trying to place the origin of that familiar little trill). With variations on two hook motifs in a single song, one may safely proclaim: It’s a hit!

With a memorably pretty keyboard intro, the gorgeous golden luster of “It’s Only Life,” conjures Sea Change Beck and Hunky Dory Bowie in the verses, before launching a luscious falsetto chorus entirely worthy of the Thom Yorke of OK Computer days–and then into the pretty singalong section of the back half of the chorus, singing “It’s only life, it’s only natural.”

From there on, it’s just a recirculating series of those choruses, broken by a totally cool spaghetti western guitar low-string guitar solo– as if the song wasn’t infectious enough. This one is a home run. And James touches all the bases.

A Latin feel invests the soul of the verses of “Bait & Switch” before turning quickly toward Andy Partridge territory in the jazzy middle sections. Another twangy guitar solo more or less continues what was established on “It’s Only Life.” It’s a tidy little number. Over before you know it.

“September” is James Mercer summoning threads of his own musical history to weave a rich new tapestry– a plaintive hauntingly joyful tune. Again he evokes a sense of birth in the mood of the lyric, like a song of newborn infancy. The western country cradle in which the song swings makes of this one sweet little ballad.

What would be another great choice as a single, “No Way Down” features all the stalwart charms that James Mercer imparts to his music. Boiled down this would amount to an endless chain of nice changes, culminating in a really memorable chorus (I can name that tune in three notes). And in the bridge appears one of the better lyrical lines of the album: “Make me a drink strong enough to wash away the dishwater world they said was lemonade.” Try to wrap your mind around that one and report back later.

James Mercer and the Shins on Letterman

A Knopfler sensibility informs the guitar solo intro of “For A Fool,” where a laid-back country feel notions a direction, again reminiscent of Beck circa Sea Change. The Beck references are not by accident but are a result of the input from multi-instrumentalist co-producer Greg Kurstin, who has worked with (besides Beck) a veritable Who’s Who of music greats, beginning with Dweezil Zappa (Kurstin was twelve at the time) and including Flaming Lips and Foster the People, to name but two out of dozens and dozens. That is to say, beyond Beck, you can definitely hear elements of everything else as well. It’s a rich musical soup, to be sure.

The melody of the verse of “Fall of “82,” a song Mercer dedicated to his sister, refers liberally to Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,”with maybe a faint hint of the verse of Thin Lizzy’s “Boys are Back in Town” thrown in for good measure. A totally ’60s trumpet solo puts the cap on this one.

“40 Mark Strasse” refers to a street frequented by young prostitutes near Ramstein airforce base in Germany, where Mercer spent some of his youth with his family. The song is fittingly eerie in context, with banshee keyboard moans graying the background behind a solitary acoustic guitar. A fairly mundane verse gives way to a sumptuous chorus that makes the trip completely worthwhile.

The title track, which references the tiny port on the Columbia near Boardman in Morrow County, is a smoky bluesy jazzy sort of number with burbling keyboard sounds, synth strings and Mellotron, and what sounds like a guitar through a Leslie speaker, but that could just as easily be a patch on a keyboard too, one would suppose. An endearingly pastoral end to delightful tour.

In literature and in painting, to be sure, it is considered appropriate and even proper to quote or copy pieces that went before. Half the books written in the English language quote Shakespeare one way or another. The pose for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon owes in part its substance to the work of El Greco. Classical composers constantly borrowed themes from folk songs or from other composers to sew into new cloth.

But in pop music, the idea seems anathema, even though all of rock and roll is founded on a mere handful of chord progressions. Music is everywhere to be found, to be absorbed and recirculated. Hell, as a child, Mozart claimed to hear music in his oatmeal. One hopes there are no copyright infringements pending on that one.

But all melody in music is relative. Quoting other songs, even distantly, even unintentionally, is an indication of how liquid our society is. The past sixty years of the genre are readily accessible on the radio or the internet.

A truly talented composer can use this rich palette to his advantage, by drawing (possibly unconsciously) from all of these millions of songs to add rich referential context to a tiny three minute piece of fluff. Somehow, a song acquires a gravity and density through the incorporation of only a few notes. A hook emerges. A hit ensues.

James Mercer is a truly talented composer. His ear for a hook is impeccable. Every song among the ten here stick in one’s brain like gum on the bottom of a mental shoe. Every song sounds instantly memorable, even on the first listen. And listening to this album is like welcoming an old acquaintance. Warm and familiar.

Port of Morrow is not going to overpower anybody with its lyrical insights. Mercer can turn a phrase, but he sometimes wanders away from his topic, in search of a clever line or nifty rhyme. But as pop songwriters go, he’s Grade A. He is a song fisherman of the highest order. He’s got all the hooks he needs.

New Shins: They may be coming to your town (if you live in Bend)


Lost Lander


See, this sort of thing has been going on for some time in this town. Incest. Oh, not that kind. Although, it’s always been apparent in Oregon that there is a bit of that in the backwater towns. No, I’m talking about the intermarriage of bands. Over the past decade it’s only gotten worse. And the aggregation affiliated with the creation of this project (and its various predecessors) is the perfect example of this intermingling.

Brent Knopf

Lost Lander represents the collaborative efforts of former Menomena (and, recurringly, Ramona Falls) keyboardist and utility-man Brent Knopf, and the equally talented and musically multi-dimensional Matt Sheehy. The music here reflects, especially, Sheehy’s work with Gravity and Henry, and Knopf’s incisive elaborations as Ramona Falls.

Their tastes and artistic sensibilities are similar enough, that it is often hard to tell who is at the helm at any particular moment within the presentation. Apparently the balance falls to Sheehy, as he is responsible for the basic songs, and the member to lead the live Lost Lander team. Meanwhile Knopf is preparing Prophet, a new Ramona Falls release, which will debut on May Day. It would seem he serves more as producer and side-musician—especially on keyboards, for which he is renowned. There is a characteristic sheen to the musical proceedings that is unmistakably his.

Matt Sheehy starring in "Russia"

Knopf and Sheehy go back a ways. The first evidence of an alliance between the two seems to have appeared with Sheehy’s solo album Tigerphobia, released in 2008, where Knopf performed brilliant re-mixes for two tracks. And, for his part, as a guitarist and vocalist, Sheehy has since performed as a member of the touring ensemble for Ramona Falls, as well as starring in the wonderful 2010 video for the RF song “Russia.” One would suppose that a Ramona Falls/Lost Lander tour would make a lot of sense for everyone.

The fruit of their mutual labors here is pretty spectacular. World-class sound for sophisticated well-crafted songs, rendered with measured passion. As Lost Lander, they’ve already (deservedly) received a lot of comparisons to any number of popular musical artists. There will be more here. Anything you hear on this album is equal or superior to anything or anyone to which it is being equated. Rest assured. This is good stuff.

We begin, somewhat appropriately one would think, with “Cold Feet.” Ethereal vocal birds and a trace of tribal chant brindle the introductory phase of the song. Then a chorus of stringy, prickly percussive things enters the sonic scheme, accompanied by some additional heavy shelling from guest drummer Dana Janssen (Akron/Family). A brilliant twist of melodic turn and back to the birds of the intro: intimating the notion of arrival or return. As perhaps of a lander that had been lost but now is found. It would not appear to be too much of a reach to assign such symbolic meaning to the artistic choices made throughout this entire mission, here being the first opportunity. “Gotta turn it off.”

A distinct ‘60s feel imbues the combination of electric and acoustic guitars on “Dig (How It Feels To Lay in the Soft Light),” a sense of Jeff Beck’s searing guitar part on the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” is paired with an attitude reminiscent of the Zombies—one which certainly sounds far more the mood update and instrumental refitting than any sort of tribute. This, of course, could only have been accrued by these lads either by means of genetic bequeath, or an incredibly stellar record collection, or both.

Then into the mix insert some dynamite drum fills (executed by Janssen and Niko Kwiatkowski) to occasionally explode like landmines across the sonic scenery. Yeah, and induce, say, a John Vanderslice doppel to do a vocal over that sort of groovity and let it fly. There you go. Boom. Sophisticated and restrained—as if the arrangements had all the time in the world to unfold: which is absolutely true, up to about four minutes.

Lost Lander: the Touring Ensemble

The star brilliant “Afraid of Summer” sounds like a possible distant cousin to the Shins’ “Phantom Limb.” Over simple nylon string acoustic guitar accompaniment, a hauntingly beautiful song of deep longing upfloats like a single cloud on a sunny summer day. “I’m afraid of Summer, ‘cause you know I can’t swim/I get lost in the water when the tide pulls me in.”

At around the one-minute mark, the second section furls around subtle percussion from Kwiatkowski and Scott Magee (Y La Bamba, Loch Lomond), and an array of spectacular instrumentation—apparently all synthesized. Fairlight-like, Melotronish strings, plucky pizzacato harp or strings (maybe a koto patch), an expansive assortment of keyboards: bass, piano, and elastic, heavily-modded electric piano fashion a fine mist of the ‘80s (like Duran, Duran meets Tears For Fears) mournfully wafting above. A flash of Eels streaming through. Toward the end of the piece, galloping drums and trudging strings run up Kate Bush’s hill with no problems, while the watery piano of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” slides down the other side. If the song were to get any more wistful, it would wist itself right out of existence.

This sort of lonely lostboy moonery is nothing new. Paul McCartney and Paul Simon staked out the melancholy manchild landscape long ago, back in the ‘60s. By example, there is a song by Barclay James Harvest, a ‘70s British band, called “Galadriel” that is one of the obvious ancestors to “Afraid of Summer.” Certainly, production values and recording quality have changed drastically over the past forty years, but the sentiment is unmistakable. You can check that out here. Still, Lost Lander’s exploration of the territory is new and their impressions are fresh. And “Afraid of Summer” is simply a magnificent piece of work. A hit.

“Kangaroo,” is another keyboard driven number, with cool guitar moments from guest Seth Olinkski (also of Akron/Family)—the chorus powerful and moving. ‘80s keyboard fills dapple “Belly of the Bird.” The vocals call to mind Brandon Flowers of the Killers or Tom Chaplin of Keane. Janssen’s skittering toms drive the song, while angular string parts saw against an infectious chorus. From there one is hurtled into the crashwaltzing waves, cymbals splashing, and the grandeuresque piano of an extended coda, sailing to the close.

A seafaring shanty, of sorts, “The Sailor” launches on a familiar folky melody, “All my friends have gone away/They fell in love, oh they fell in love.” Janssen and Kwiatkowski provide relentless propulsion, rumbling toms and chattering closed high-hats. As with a few of the cuts on this album, the arrangement here may be bigger than the song it is holding up. But ultimately it’s great work, so you’ll get no complaints from this side of the monitor screen.

Matt Sheehy

Another heavily folk-informed venture, “Wonderful World” sounds most like something you might have heard on Tigerphobia. Sean Flinn’s (The Royal We, Y La Bamba) doleful electric guitar wraiths ephemerally around simple acoustic guitar. As elsewhere, Holly Carmen Atreyah’s angelic vocal harmonies decorate the perimeters. Where the verse progresses with a pensive gait, the chorus flourishes prettily, hinging upon a tiny piano figure. Opulently precise.

Actual strings embroider “Through Your Bones” with sinuous sonic tensility. It’s a song worthy of Sufjan Stevens—though the ensemble arrangement is not so sloppy—or Elliott Smith, perhaps, but without the bleak black moribundity. Again there are references to time and tide, leading one to speculate as to the possibility of this project being some sort of concept album. There is a recurring nautical theme in many of the songs. A sense of voyage and expedition. If it is a concept album, it must be pointed out that the concept is buried sufficiently deep as to prevent detection on any but a purely subconscious level.

What sound like balalaikas (or dulcimer, maybe) ring out to usher in “Gossamer Wings.” It’s a gentle waltz, with a peculiar lyric. “Gossamer wings sprang from her shoulders/She said her goodbye and took to the sky/A quick icy grip took hold under the ship/And told all that she wanted to know.” Woozy strings and circus drums (Scott Magee) swirl around the middle section, before abruptly abutting into the final verse. Guest Nick Jaina’s sputtering bass putters beneath plunking piano, into a finale that ends all at once with no real resolution.

Brent Knopf

“Dead Moon” contains the only lyric specifically credited to Knopf and the possibility is good that he is the vocalist here as well. Whichever of the pair it is, the breaking falsetto instantly calls to mind Chris Martin, but cleaner here without the horrible Gwyneth Paltrow ambiance palling like car exhaust over the whole affair. It’s a quiet song with hardly any accompaniment. Percussion only enters at the extended fade.

The final number “Your Name is a Fire” could almost pass for an actual Coldplay song, except that it’s a bit more intricate, with rubbery synth bass; and the rhythmic foundation is more complex. Why, there’s even handclaps in the bridge! Handclaps guarantee a hit. That is a well-known fact. It’s a great song, if way too short.

In some ways, though they are stellar, the arrangements here are almost too concise. It sort of reminds me of the classical music device of “figured bass.” We are given the (highly produced) skeleton of a song, with no excessive augmentation whatsoever. It’s all gold. Make your own extended mixes. Maybe extended mixes is what a lot of this is about. Hmm.

Because, it’s all just great, really great.  Nearly every song sounds like something ready-made for a film soundtrack. It’s about as well put together as an album can be. And every aspect is of the very highest standard: the compositions, the musical choices, the instrumentation, the presentation, and performances. All of it is brilliant. You may or may not appreciate the music that the group here known as Lost Lander create. It might be too poppy for some. Too mainstream. But no one can deny what an amazing piece of work this album is.


Y La Bamba

Court The Storm
Tender Loving Empire

It’s said that there are no straight lines in nature. If that is in fact the case, then this is the most natural album ever made. There’s no “shortest distance between two points” here. Nothing resolves as expected. Just when you think you’re moving toward something, you veer. No straight lines. Still, as beautiful as any tree. Songs as lovely as wind and birds.

That’s certainly the case with Y La Bamba’s new project, Court the Storm. Produced by saxophonist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos (who now lives in Portland), it’s as close as you’re likely to come to a perfectly recorded album. Nothing is wasted here. Not an instrument, not a part, not a voice, not even the silent spaces. This attention to detail results in a piece of sonic opulence we indie lovers don’t often get to hear. It’s cut like a diamond, clean and pristine.

Technically, this is Y La Bamba’s third release. But Alida St., which came out at the end of 2008, was pretty much a home-recorded solo effort for vocalist Luz Elena Mendoza. And Lupon, YLB’s debut for the Tender Loving Empire label, produced by Decemberist Chris Funk, was recorded by a version of the band that no longer existed by the time the album was actually released in September, 2010.

But for this endeavor the players more-or-less remained the same coming out as going in (with the exception of guitarist Sean Flinn, who recently left the band to pursue his own project, the Royal We. He does contribute to two tracks here, however). Still, the music for this production has been cooked down to its essential juices through a year of relentless touring. During that time they performed as opening act for several Neko Case shows, and she in turn makes a guest appearance on the title track.

For his part, Berlin pretty much took the band under his wing, serving not only as producer, but as engineer, side-musician, and co-arranger as well. His contributions are nowhere and everywhere to be found. He is the artificer of this creation. Though all trace of his proximity has gradually been erased from the sonic picture, faint stylistic shadows and trails remain which leave indelible marks upon the finished piece.

His approach to production is addition by subtraction—wherein silence serves as an instrument in the mix. There is not an overbearing note or chord to be found. The album springs with delightful touches, fleeting filigrees, brilliant artistic flourishes. Every instrument seems to be exactly the right choice for any particular musical moment. And, as mentioned, the arrangements never proceed in a straight line, but angle affably or circle and spiral majestically.

It is upon Luz and the band that at all times the spotlight falls. Luz means “light” in Spanish and that is precisely what she what she provides. Hers is an antique golden light, never harsh or glaring. She is an inadvertent bruja, whose shamanistic incantations transcend language altogether, entering into some far more intimate space in the human psyche and soul.

Her vocal presence alone in any song would guarantee a unique performance. But over the past couple of years, Y La Bamba have evolved to match Luz’s considerable abilities. This is no support act, but a real, if extremely subtle band. When second percussionist Scott Magee and guitarist Paul Cameron joined the core of the band a couple of years ago, they immediately began to help solidify the presentation. That both were adept singers meant that all six members of the band were available to contribute to the complex vocal harmonies that were already beginning to develop.

In addition, Magee lends occasional clarinet interludes to the mix. But it is Cameron who has proven to be most valuable. He has evolved as a vocalist to the extent that he expertly doubles Luz’s voice in places. And his efforts in working with Luz on the writing and arranging of the newer material should not be underestimated. So, all this to say that everything has tightened up and focused for this sophomore release. The results are truly stunning.

We open with the rousing, polymetric “Squawk,” a rhythmic foray that explores not only Luz’s Mexican mariachi roots, but augments with Afro textures as well. Sean Flinn’s syncopated, Afro Highlife-flavored guitar phrasings dance upon what sounds like threes on fives in the intro. This album abounds in unrelenting threes, even over and inside the fours (and fives), so: embrace the feel.

Luscious vocal harmonies blossom beneath the warmth of Luz’s sultry intonation in the lead, while subtle instrumentation bubbles beneath. Alternating time signatures create separate moods, colored by subtle vocal shadings. Hypnotic. Exotic.

And if the shifting time of the aforementioned were not impressive enough, check out the intricate interplay of key signatures on “Bendito.” Against cleverly complex rhythms of Magee’s toms and Mike Kitson’s snare, Luz coos away in Spanish (there are alleged to be several songs sung in Spanish on this outing). This is not immediately apparent, however, partly because of the vibrancy of the arrangement, but mostly because her voice is so fascinating. It’s similar to the experience of listening to Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins. Beyond words. Ethereal.

Cameron’s impeccable harmonies through the verses are a thing of wonder to behold. Seamless. Perfect. And in the turns, these guys rock out with just the adjunct of Eric Schrepel’s wheezy accordion and the hint of something resembling an electric guitar. Midway everything turns all dreamy—windy, angelic vocals. Thick vibes bubble and either a cello, or the accordion, sounding all cello-like, moans forlornly in the background. Kitson breaks in with a full kit for possibly the only time on the entire album, before the song quickly melts back into the first section and succinctly slams to a powerful close.

“Moral Panic” is a pensive ballad that has been in YLB’s repertoire for at a couple of years (one of the first Luz and Paul worked on together). Returning to the wistful mood of the middle of “Bendito,” vibes, accordion and arpeggiating guitar supplement the gorgeous vocals. Briefly the gait breaks faster before resolving in the same sweetsomber introspection as it started. Spectacular. “It’s nice to have a life of tribulation.” Indeed.

Cameron’s majestic folky finger-picking on acoustic guitar and magical vocal duet with Luz (recorded live in the studio) are the elegant ornaments surrounding the tender “Houghson Boys.” More luxurious vocal choirs sing exultantly in another lilting middle-section, displaying characteristic elegance and restraint.

The bouyant polka of “Como Ratones” twirls upon gentle, breezy percussion, the rhapsodic hum of accordion, the dusty romance of soft guitar and the plucked high plaint of what is possibly a charango (my knowledge of traditional Mexican stringed instruments is quite limited), the equivalent of a ukelele. Or it’s a ukelele. It’s a simple little song that creeps like a mouse. A quaint toy piano tone commingles with the accordion to create a satisfying antique effect in the final turns.

The somber “Idaho’s Genius” features bassist Ben Meyercord as lead vocalist. Cameron is responsible for the backing vocals below, with Luz above in the high harmony. As is often the case with YLB, the song does not really bloom to full flower until the middle of the song, with rumbling toms, military snare, and a tambourine providing impetus, vague stringed instruments flitting like hummingbirds and dragonflies at the edges of the mix—a xylophone dripping sunlight upon the swirling pool of wordless tones.

“Viuda Encabronada” retraces themes established with “Squawk,” combining burbling Latin exuberance with the clipped angularity of Flinn’s AfricanHighlife-style guitar (in conjunction with the accordion, approximating Paul Simon’s “Boy In A Bubble”). A jovial trombone enters in at the end of the song creating a street party atmosphere. Here, as everywhere, the vocals are simply superb. Seemingly effortless harmonies embroider a rich sonic fabric.

Fretting toms drive “Ponce Pilato,” as Luz and Paul again unite in a sweet duet beneath fluttering acoustic guitar phrasings. Honey-sweet guitars glisten and shimmer in the instrumental interludes as splashing cymbals and plashing tambourine flicker a gentle momentum.

Music gets no more exquisite than the irrepressibly catchy “Michoacan.” Luz exuberantly leads the ensemble through an enchanting arabesque, reflecting the rich essences of Mexican popular music. Her spirited delivery is buoyed by an array of instruments, softly floating butterfly flutes and bright mariachi brass, chiming mandolins (?) and even a tingling triangle. Fantastic.

The flamenco-like handclap/footstomp percussion of “Dialect of Faith” is suffused by apparent electric guitar, sinewy ukelele tones, insistent snare, and Schrepel’s dramatic accordion fugue. Supple harmonies nest beneath Luz’s soaring, gliding vocal flights. For Y La Bamba, drama and emotion are a given. Every song pulls at the heart and wrestles with the soul. Few bands command the sort of gravity that YLB routinely generate.

Of the eleven songs presented on this album, the title track “Court The Storm” is perhaps the only one that doesn’t have its feet squarely placed south of the Rio Grande. Neko Case’s sweet harmonies sweep along with Luz on the track. Upon a simple acoustic guitar progression, accordion, xylophone (?), banjo (?) pealing charango (or bandurria or…) and soft piano fall like rain around the women’s voices.

Here is a good example of the previously mentioned YLB arrangemental veer: About two minutes into the song, the drums build in tension—sounding for all the world as if they will explode. Instead it is as if a match were blown out. Back to the quiet. Poof. But forty seconds later a militant snare enters the mix like it was marching along the whole time. The song builds to a crescendo and then the choir slowly drifts off into the mist and fog. Vaya con dios.

What continually comes to the fore is the remarkable growth as musicians that Y La Bamba display on Court The Storm. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is not growth they display, but a denser sense of esprit de corps. Cameron’s presence obviously has much to do with this, as his chameleon-like ability to color himself into the scenery of the musical moment is a true gift, to be sure.

And Steve Berlin’s contributions and influence cannot be overstated either, in precisely the same ways. He’s so good you don’t even know he’s there. The result is a recording with nothing out of place. Nothing unnecessary. Not a note wasted. Perfect. There must be a Grammy out there somewhere with this project’s name on it. There must be.

But in the end, always, Y La Bamba is Luz. She could sing the repair manual of a 1988 Ford F150 pickup truck and make it sound vital and interesting. She is such a great vocalist it’s a marvel just to hear her larynx vibrating in the air. The fact that she writes (or co-writes) deep, thoughtful lyrics becomes almost immaterial.

Her phrasing is equal to that of Billie Holiday. Her tone spans Astrud Gilberto to Joan Baez to, I don’t know, Lady Gaga ( or whoever!) with everything in between, historical or contemporary. She’s the whole package. And that is just considering American greats. God knows she is probably easily equal to countless great Mexican singers as well. She stands out.

That’s the real key. Luz Elena Mendoza is in a class by herself. In the history of popular music, there are and have been a few truly great female vocalists. She is one of them—or can be, if she goes after it. She does not know this yet. Whatever musical form she chooses to explore will be enriched by her choice. She can do whatever she wants. She sings in the language of all humanity and it is only a matter of time before humanity hears her voice. It’s inevitable.

Y La Bamba on NPR

You can read SP’s review of Y La Bamba’s 2010 release, Lupon here


Live Review: WaveSauce at BYTE ME 2012

A theremin

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been asking yourself “Why don’t more surf bands use a theremin in their act?” You also may be asking yourself, “What in God’s name is a theremin?” And for that you are to be forgiven. It’s not a common instrument in rock and roll. It’s not a common instrument in much of anything, but it seems to me like country music could possibly be a logical vehicle for such an apparatus. More on that later.

Oh, you know the drill. You’ve actually heard a theremin before, you just don’t know it. In essence, a theremin is a very, very primitive synthesizer. It generates that eerie siren-call you hear in old movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, Spellbound, and more recently in Ed Wood. The Beach Boys created a theremin sound for “Good Vibrations,” but that wasn’t actually a theremin they used. Some guy played a musical saw on a couple Neutral Milk Hotel songs. A musical saw sounds like a theremin, with similar creepy portamento and glissando. But a musical saw and a theremin have about as much in common as a hammer and a radio.

Leon Theremin invented the theremin in 1920 as part of a Russian government program researching proximity sensors. Soon thereafter, Theremin left Russia, touring Europe and the US, demonstrating to captivated crowds his new instrument. He received a US patent for his unusual creation in 1928. Remaining in the United States, he was apparently spirited away by the KGB in 1938 and taken back to Russia. There, he was obliged to work in a laboratory at a prison camp in Siberia for thirty years. He did not return to the US until 1991, two years before his death.

The best-known “thereminist” in the world is the late Clara Rockmore, who was originally a classically trained violinist, before physical problems forced her to abandon the instrument. She learned of the theremin and soon began working with the inventor to improve the sound and response of his device. She also developed the very subtle ballet-like technique of the hands and fingers required to actually play the instrument. You can check out a video of Clara Rockmore rockin’ the theremin here.

Michele “Cookie” Heile, a longtime percussionist and vocalist with Jesus Presley, first became interested in the theremin in 2005 after seeing the Leon Theremin documentary An Electronic Odyssey. She says she “became obsessed with the mystery, history, and beauty of the instrument.” She acquired one and slowly taught herself how to play.

In 2007, Cookie met Cleveland-transplant Pete Vercellotti, a musician since age thirteen and an avid collector of all things vintage Rock. Cookie and Pete hit it off instantly, personally and professionally. They formed the instrumental band WaveSauce not long after meeting—initially as just a duo. Pete already had in place the foundation of another band called Pale Blue Sky. Still in operation, Pale Blue Sky is a tough, eclectic quartet that plays a gritty combination of original songs and cover songs culled from Pete’s extensive LP collection.

Wave Sauce

Not long after WaveSauce formed, Pete and Cookie began to work with drummers and bassists. They eventually bonded with drummer Doug Powers. And about two years ago, longtime Pale Blue Sky bassist Joel Boutwell came on board and the quartet was set. They say they’ve “been influenced by ‘60s garage, pulp music, and B-rated horror, spy biker and hotrod films (which they refer to as spyfi-pulp). And surf.”

That sounds reasonable. When you hear them, the instrumental turf they tread is pretty obvious. Other citations, such as Dick Dale, The Ventures, Devo, Clara Rockmore and Leon Theremin, are totally appropriate in an attempt to capture a description of the nuances of their sound. I guarantee you will never again see those five names linked in a single sentence. It really is a weird musical world in which we dwell. And this is how weird I am, I can actually understand the relationships of those references and I think they define the parameters of this band quite precisely. In other words: Wow!

WaveSauce play a lot of originals. But there is a distinct advantage in playing obscure material that lies genetically embedded in the recesses of all human brains. If you play original stuff that sounds very familiar, it is easy to convince the casual listener (in this instance: me) that it’s all cover songs. Mais au contraire.

The addition of theremin to Surf songs is not as unsettling as you might think (but it sure as hell would be for Clara Rockmore, you can bet on that). For some reason it seems to lend itself to the wavy motion of the typical surf tune. It’s too bad more (any) B-movies didn’t utilize the theremin in their surf-themed flicks or spy (a wailing woman sound) or biker flicks (police siren allusion). It could have worked. It does work. Does anybody still make cheesy biker B-movies like Glory Stompers, Wild Angels, Devil’s Angels, or Hell’s Angels on Wheels? Maybe Robert Rodriguez?

WaveSauce maneuver through several classics (known and unknown)—such as with Pete’s nifty guitar on the thick, chord-heavy “Deep Surf” by Jerry Cole and the Spacemen (of which Leon Russell was a member) from 1964, and Cookie’s swirly-whirly take on the Chantays’ “Pipeline.” They carry off the persistent cheerleading clap and windblown momentum of the Routers’ “Let’s Go” with spunky aplomb: Boutwell balancing the arrangement on solid fulcrum low-end.

Among their originals, “Phantom Strut” and “Sonic Who,” stand out. The cool “Black Cat Strut” is punctuated by Pete’s cat-in-heat moan, while his crazy cackle gives “Die Laughing” a certain “Wipe Out” maniacal sensibility. With Powers muscling through the turns and driving the main theme, WaveSauce’s rendition of the Reekers’ ‘60s nugget “Don’t Call Me Flyface” is actually more appealing than the original. Cookie zooms through the expositional sections like a crazed zephyr—assuming zephyrs can become crazed.

WaveSauce’s version of Hank Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme” is very innovative. Cookie leads the band through the familiar curves with a slippery solo, while Pete vamps out punchy chords behind her. Nice. And their take on the endless sunset of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” is especially interesting. Those familiar with the song are doubtless keenly aware of the exacting steel guitar precision of the melody line. The theremin does not allow for Cookie to articulate the nuances, but she hits the high spots. When the day comes that she finally masters this piece, she can consider herself a true theremin master.

They also do a pretty sharp version of Stan Jones’ “Ghostriders in the Sky,” a piece possibly harvested from another of their acts: Panhandle Pete and Cookie. In describing that duo Cookie says “Imagine a long dark highway stretching out through the Southwest desert.” Again, with theremin and guitar, they perform “country standards that set the soundtrack for a spaghetti western directed by David Lynch.”

My brain’s all over the place with this theremin thing. The surf aspect is great. It’s an outlet, but certainly limited in scope. The other musical areas that Pete and Cookie are exploring seem like a good idea. I’d love to hear a version of “Apache” either the Shadows or Jorgen Ingmann’s (depending upon where your sentiments lie) rendition would be fine. And a retread of “Walk Don’t Run” seems like a good idea. I can hear Cookie going off on that.

But I’d also love to hear her take a crack at something like Duane Allman’s slide solo in “Layla.”  I guess that’s technically almost out in spaghetti western territory. Actually the theremin is more than a satisfactory replacement for those banshee soprano voices Ennio Morricone favored, such as for that movie named after this column. And what about country music? The theremin could more than satisfactorily replace a pedal steel guitar, at least in a single note capacity. Which brings us to bluegrass and the musical saw.

It will be fun to see where Pete and Cookie take this thing. There are many possibilities. A theremin is such a strange instrument, and rare to encounter, that it would seem there will always be occasional demand for such a curiosity. With WaveSauce, they have hit upon an unusual and successful delivery system. But they’ve got a lot of ways they can go, depending on the direction in which the trade winds blow.

The World of T,E.D. and How You’re Probably In It

Number 9 Guy

I have seen the future of art. I wasn’t expecting it and I certainly didn’t anticipate it coming from the mouths of talking teddy bears, but such are the cumulative quintessences of kismet and epiphany. Ephemeral. Ethereal. Evanescent. Temporal. All exists in the moment. Like a room full of talking teddy bears venting their deepest, darkest secrets.

Eighty of them. Eighty Teddy Ruxpin toy teddy bears offering sentiments and observations from a wide spectrum of emotional perspectives. Well, a spectrum twenty-four emotions wide, actually. And not wide so much as a conical vortex of colliding feelings and sensations. And then there’s the amorphously abstract dreamlike sound track.

The talking teddy bears are the stars of a project referred to as T,E.D.—which stands for Transformations, Emotional Deconstruction. It debuted as part of the BYTE ME 2012 exhibition at Launch Pad Gallery (, on January 6th. The press release describes the production as a “large work [which] features 80 customized Teddy Ruxpin dolls wired together, delivering real-time emotional content from the internet in discreet 1-minute ‘packages’ based on the Emotion Wheel developed by the psychologist Robert Plutchik. Additional interactive real-time input can also be received from text messaging or an on-site user interface.”

Whew! Okay, fine.

T,E.D. is the brainchild of conceptual artist Sean Hathaway, with Carlos Severe Marcelin of Sally Tomato providing the imaginatively unique soundtrack. The result of their collaboration is a technological achievement of some dense specific gravity, the ramifications of which extend exponentially throughout the art and music worlds, their impact not yet fully determined.

Teddy Ruxpin

It’s probably been 25 years since the real heyday of the Ruxpin empire. For those unfamiliar (and I’m no expert, to be sure), the Teddy Ruxpin line were the teddy bears of choice for discerning four-year-olds in the mid-80s. The cache was that the Ruxpin bears talked. They told stories. They moved their eyes and mouths as they told stories. With the mere slip of a cassette into the accessible backside port, the toys could change their stories, and ostensibly, change their limited range of facial expressions as well.

And so the technology slumbered for two decades, until 2005, when Backpack Toys produced Teddy Ruxpin 4.0, which finally exchanged analog technology for thum thar new-fangled digital ROM cartridges. But Backpack eventually discontinued production and the remaining dolls were left to languish in outpost warehouses scattered around the nation. There is nothing so inexpensive as load of unwanted Teddy Ruxpin dolls. But alas, there it is.

When Sean Hathaway was just a kid, Teddy Ruxpin was all the rage. He says he was “scared of those bears…for their vague and gross mechanical representation of a living thing.” Considering what he ended up doing with the bears, that’s a presciently fortuitous choice of words.

What inspired his experimentation with Teddy Ruxpin dolls, anyway?

“Having a palette of Teddy Ruxpins in my basement,” he giggles.

Well, yes. That would seem to be a determining feature: a basement full of teddy bears.

“There was this old surplus store called Wacky Willie’s—it went out of business. They’d had these for years. I’d been looking at them since I was a kid. And I said okay, I’ll give you twenty-five cents apiece for them. I got a hundred of them, so…”

A hundred. Sure. Who’d ever pass up the opportunity at a hundred Teddy Ruxpin dolls? A no-brainer. And so how long has Sean been working on this venture?

“Off and on for about three years. It’s just been my evening project. It started out like ‘what am I gonna do with all these dolls?’ But it started to take on a life of its own. I could make them talk. Okay, now that I can make them talk, what are they going to say?”

Yeah. Now that you can make them talk. Way way way…Wait a minute. “Make them talk?” “What are they gonna say?” Is this going to be like one of those stories you hear about where some Asian porn flick is coming out of the mouths of Ruxpins, or something like that?



“I was playing around with voice synthesis and realized I could get basic info about phonemes, which I could use to animate their mouths in sync with the speech synthesis. So now I have this creepy sort of animatronic puppet that’d speak any text I give it. Okay, that’s pretty fun but now what should it say? What’s worth saying? Then I remembered the excellent web site /online art piece by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, which aggregates emotional content out of people’s blogs in real time. They invite other artists to use their data and offer a mechanism to query it.”

Uh, aggregates emotional content? Gee…

“That part just came about on its own over time. At first I started with a bunch of bears that I wanted to make sing in some sort of chorus. I thought maybe an opera where the bears would burst into flames as characters died. But as I explored the bears and technology, and as I made some fortunate mistakes playing with them, they presented me with a series of decisions that led to the final piece.”

The site is a work of genius in its own right. Their manifesto states:

“Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases ‘I feel’ and ‘I am feeling’. When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the ‘feeling’ expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can be the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved. The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000-20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions.”

If you’re asking yourself, “Gosh, I wonder if this technology could be used for evildoing?” you and I are on the same page. And that’s just the tip of the creative emotional sno-cone in this particular case. There’s much more to the story. Robert Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel.

Robert Plutchik conceived of a system for exploring the full range of human emotions and how they are related. In 1980, he developed a twenty-four-color, two-dimensional, emotion “wheel,” as well as a three-dimensional conic version, to illustrate the complex inter-relationship between positive and negative emotions, demonstrating that human feelings were an intricate combination of emotions. A veritable rainbow stew.

Plutchik Emotion Wheel

In Plutchik’s system there are eight principal emotions, four pairs of polar opposites, found at the primary and secondary intercardinal points of the wheel: Joy/Sadness and Fear/Anger at the primary points. Trust/Disgust and Surprise/Anticipation at the secondary points. The three primary colors/emotions are: Red/Rage, Blue/Grief, and Yellow/Ecstasy. Everything else builds from there, I guess. Seems reasonable. Pretty much covers it in my world.

Though innovative, Plutchik’s union of emotions with colors was, obviously, not a novel idea. Red with rage, blue with sadness, and green with envy have been with us since…since colors and analogies, I suppose. Similar correlations to the western musical octave and the twelve-tone scale are certainly appropriate, although as yet not fully explored, as far as I know. And then there’s the Lüscher-Color-Diagnostic, of course. Put that all together and you’ve got a real concept, although I am unable to conceive of it at this time.

But with three intensities of eight spectral colors (there are two shades of green in Plutchik’s spectrum), all primary, secondary and tertiary colors and related hues are represented, twenty-four in all, twenty-four gradations of emotions, each within fifteen degrees of the next. There are a few specialty items, such as a very pretty, salmon-colored “Annoyance” and a verdant, meadowy, chartreuse “Acceptance.” But all the color/emotion combinations seem to fit, somehow. Pastels. Mix and match colors and emotions and you’ve got Freudian Feng Shui 101. Is that a thing? Sign me up.

How did the Plutchik Emotion Wheel come to play in Sean’s grand design?

“Close to the end of the initial concept development I knew I wanted Ted’s performances to be self-generative based on what was happening emotionally online at any given moment, but I found that just letting it run in a totally random way was really confusing and displeasing. I didn’t want to force or drive what the installation was doing as that would kill the generative aspect of it. So I needed a way to enforce a set of basic rules from which just the right amount of order would emerge out of an otherwise cacophonous mass of content.”

We all hate those cacophonous masses of content.

“Since I was working with emotional content an emotional classification system seemed a natural choice. And after reviewing a few different constructs, the Plutchik schema seemed to be the most natural and intuitive one. It allows for an infinite array of subtle emotional expression while still maintaining a simple and atomic foundation that worked very well for setting up a simple classification algorithm that would give the piece its randomness—its lacking sense of underlying order.”

Dude. What the hell are you talking about?

Sean Hathaway and Carlos Marcelin

“It was the music Carlos composed that really brought this part to life. I had originally intended to have a series of several five-minute-long background musical pieces to accompany the speech, but with the Plutchik scheme this rapidly evolved into a set of twenty-four one-minute pieces on a single theme that represent each of the twenty-four foundational emotions in the Plutchik schema.”

So it’s like a real-time play. But, I’m not sure how that differs from real life. Isn’t life a real time play, after all?

“The product is a generative installation that drifts about through whatever emotional states are most pervasive at any moment but presented as an endless stream of doglegging one minute sets where not only the content within the set is relational, but so is the underlying musical theme backing it up.”

Okay: it’s real life with a musical soundtrack, then. Obviously, Sean comes from an extensively hardwired electronics background, right?

“I didn’t have any experience with electronics in the beginning, but learned what I needed to in order to put the project together. My education is mainly scientific and technical in nature and I think that puts me at a slight advantage to be able to pick-up on new technical skills at a fairly rapid rate. Over the past few years, I have been greatly inspired by sources such as Make Magazine and that provide a venue for sharing knowledge and skills. There’s a growing collection of open-source software tools, and collective skill-sharing clubs.”

Stephen Hawking

Sean makes it sound like pretty much anybody could fill a room with inanimate teddy bears, make them talk, give them facial expressions and emotions culled from some bunch of guys “harvesting human feelings” and make it work in real time with an unusual music soundtrack in accompaniment. Really?

“It’s possible for any novice hobbyist or artist to do vacuum forming, 3D printing, physical computing or in my case designing a circuit board that could be sent to a fabrication shop for production. Just click a button to send the files, and two weeks later, you have a hundred circuit boards showing up in the mail ready for you and your friends to start soldering parts to. It really is an amazing time to be a maker of things.”

Vacuum forming? 3D printing? What’s “physical computing?” Circuit board design? You bet. Sounds like no big deal. Just make things. No problem. Run it. But, what does it all mean? What do all these emoting bears say about the human condition?

“To me the piece represents a celebration of a global level of human emotional expression that would not be possible without the technological age in which we live. These are tough questions. Our species is on a steppingstone of the evolving Information Age. Each of us has the ability to broadcast and share every part of our lives with nearly the entire world community. Like Dylan said, ‘ten thousand people talking but nobody listening’, but it’s really more like a billion people talking. I guess that’s a big part of what I was trying to say with this. I wanted to pull pieces of this collective state-sharing out of the void and give it a real presence and audience.”


Doesn’t it all seem sort of lonely and impersonal?

“Everything you hear in the installation is something that somebody somewhere in the world wanted you to hear. Right at this moment somebody in Montana has lost a love and someone in New Jersey has found one, and they want you to know about it. Isolation of one form or another is universal human truth. But how is that truth altered by such complete and intimate connectivity? That’s a question I ponder quite a bit when thinking about this installation.”

Well, the world has changed pretty dramatically over the past 20 years. There’s no denying that. It’s hard to say where it might go from here.

“I constantly contemplate the notion that my one-year-old daughter will never know a world where she can’t share how she feels about the bowl of soup she’s eating with people in New York, Paris, Bangkok or Tokyo—before it has a chance to get cold. But what does that mean exactly? Will anyone be listening or care? I do feel pride and a greater sense of connectivity to humanity knowing that when someone’s daughter somewhere in the world was pleased with her bowl of soup, for a small group of people on a Friday night in Portland, Oregon, that message was received loud and clear and for at least a moment acknowledged.”

Picture a darkened room, maybe about the size of your living room. On two adjacent walls eighty teddy bears are hung in neat rows, all linked by a network of thin wires. Suddenly a spotlight shines on one of the bears, and it opens its eyes, begins to move its lips and to speak, sounding a bit like Stephen Hawking. It expresses some vague feeling of distress in that robot-voiced monotone, then the spotlight is extinguished to light upon a different teddy, where the voice of, say, Australian Karen GPS lady conveys a gathering sense of anxiety. A British-voiced male teddy bear, like the Beatles’ “Number 9” guy, makes a brief, succinct statement and vanishes. HAL enters the scene and registers to any “Dave” his wary apprehensions. It’s a familiar cast of characters. The juxtaposition of cheery Ruxpin faces and morbid human sensibilities makes for a jarring experience among all who witness.

Meanwhile, Carlos Severe Marcelin’s cinematic soundtrack whirs and whines enigmatic dejection in one instance, orchestrates desperate symphonic alienation in others. The experience is very much like being inside a Luis Bunuel film, with Federico Fellini directing. Even though they are lifeless bears whose eyes and mouths are responding to mere electrical impulses, their sentiments are all too human, desperate for contact and intimacy. To stand among all those bears baring their souls—like a Ruxpin AA meeting—is a surprisingly wrenching encounter. Hypnotic. Haunting. It’s nearly impossible to walk away from the exhibit without having a visceral response.

Out in the vast expanse of world, at any moment, millions and millions of people are transmitting their impressions online, to be culled and categorized into segmented channels like an emotional Pachinko machine. It would never occur to anyone to think that their random introspections might be transformed into the script for two walls of talking teddy bears. But as Sean Hathaway said:

“For a small group of people on a Friday night in Portland, Oregon, that message was received loud and clear and for at least a moment acknowledged.”

Find me dimstricken. Where next? Okay, all right then, so what color would Sean be on the Plutchik wheel? What would his bear say?

“I would have a blue-green color [Surprise and Apprehension, perhaps?], and my bear would say: ‘I feel humbled that my work was as well received as it was’.

Laura Gibson

La Grande
Barsuk Records


It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three years since Laura Gibson’s last recording, Beasts of Seasons, was released. But it’s not as if she’s been sitting on her hands the whole time since then. Early in 2010 Laura collaborated with sound collagist Ethan Rose for the ethereal Bridge Carols. And she has toured relentlessly all across the US, with occasional forays into Europe and the UK.

In the Fall of 2010, she hooked up with Sean Lennon and his talentless model-girlfriend (Claudine Longet for a new generation—she makes Zooey Deschanel seem like Beverly Sills), Charlotte Kemp Muhl, for one of their Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger concerts in New York City. Then in January 2011 Laura toured as support for GOASTT with stops in Texas and up the West Coast. And in her spare time she has been busy retrofitting a vintage ’62 Shasta trailer into a mobile recording studio.

Mature and introspective, Gibson’s songs trace the rocky terrain of a barren landscape of hardscrabble insights strewn across escarpments of desolation, through thickets of despondency and despair. It’s not that depressing. There are some berries among the briars. But, she displays the sensibilities of a poet—the antique environmental emotionality of Emily Dickinson, the idiosyncratic tangle of a Plathian knit of knotted nets. Ultimately, however, Laura owes the inspiration of her poetic perceptions to no one.

While Beasts was produced by Tucker Martine (Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) for Portland’s Hush label, the new album is being released on Seattle’s Barsuk Records (early Death Cab, Mates of State, Menomena, John Vander Slice, and Nada Surf). It was produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns and bears many of that band’s subtle, more wistful, windblown properties. Every instrument placed with a purpose—even if that purpose is not always abundantly clear.

Burns makes a noble effort toward delicately emblazoning the rustic fabric of Laura’s scratchy voice with washes of color and layers of subtle texture without overwhelming the fragile qualities of her work. Her vocals at all times remain prominent in the mix, which in and of itself is quite a technical achievement given that most people talk louder than Laura sings. Production-wise, this album launches where the song “Spirited” left off on Beasts.

To that point, the title track rumbles in on a tight, snapping snare and a walloping, galloping rubbery tomtom sound that resembles Rolf Harris’ wobbleboard on “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.” Various random crashes, banshee-like guitar wails and creaking male backing vocals beamed in from another dimension flair and flicker in the mix. This is as close to a radio-friendly single that Laura has thus far concocted in her still nascent career.

“Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed” is closer to what one has come to expect of a Laura Gibson recording. Her downy voice folds like eggwhite peaks upon sparse instrumentation: acoustic bass, vibes, clarinet and plaintive nylon string guitar. A pretty ballad with a lovely, lilting vocal melody.

Bossanova inflections pepper “Lion/Lamb,” with the piano sounding washed up on a beach and the clarinet as if the player were standing outside under a palm tree. Atmospheric—with Laura going all Astrud Gilberto on the vocals. It’s adventurous, and to be admired for that, but her voice, perhaps, isn’t so well suited for a Latin style of music as others might be. The prairie, corn whisking and wheat whistling beneath the summer sun, that’s Laura’s creative homeland. The audio version of the Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World.”

Take “Skin, Warming Skin” for instance. A sort of Joanna Newsome fairy magic pall floats over the simple acoustic guitar and Enya-like vocal theme, as mournful steel guitar moans in the distance. Very pleasing. The Victrolla, scratchy record quality of the Oh, Brother Where Art Thou flavored hymn, “The Rushing Dark,” may be using an effect that has already been used too much, but it’s a nice song and an absorbing arrangement.

The angelic groan Laura lends the magical “Red Moon” harkens to a time in the musical past that never actually existed, recreated only in pastiches such as this. It may be that this song is a distant cousin to Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” What is the word that defines the nostalgia for a time that never was? Here is the soundtrack for that feeling.

More akin in execution to material on Beasts, “Crow/Swallow” employs a simple reed section and French horn to create a Ralph Vaughan Williams-like sensibility behind Laura’s brittle vocals. Pastoral.

Meanwhile a nervous tambourine and a whining organ usher in “The Fire.” As Laura Cotten-picks and plucks her nylon string guitar, her supple Joni Mitchellish voice lulls and swales “Are you carried by the restless wind/Does it saddle you with brave ideas/With battle scars and souvenirs/To hang across your shoulder blades.”

Where a reference to Icarus seems to hover above that first verse and chorus, the imagery shifts through the second chorus “If you’re drawn to the flame/I cannot question your ways/If you’re drawn to the flame/Be not afraid of the fire.” Be not afraid of the fire sounds like something Sarah McLachlan might have said twenty years ago and should probably be permanently retired. It’s okay to say “Don’t be afraid of the fire.” People will still think you’re a poet. And the inexplicable, horrible, bashing snare smashes through the choruses in the back half of the song are truly ill-advised. Jawdroppingly distracting. Eek!

“Time is Not” is buffeted by little waves of far off sounds—availed of some sort of orchestral sensibility, sailing through the beautiful chorus propelled by breezy acoustic guitar, vibes, piano, and bubbling drums. Laura murmurs a gorgeously delicate melody. It might have been nice if the beguiling rhythm of that charming chorus would have leapt to the fore sooner. As it is, it does not take over until midway. A shorter version, an edit with mostly the uptempo half, would kill on radio or in a film. Here it simply takes too long for the song to fully spring to life. But it’s really great, all the same.

Finally, “Feather Lungs,” is accompanied by judicious piano, bass (no guitar), and segments of more “Oh, Brother…” siren calls. The poignant string section seems lifted almost directly from the National’s “About Today,” but is quite effective in this setting.

So, I don’t know about you, but I’m noticing this nautralistic sensual anima thing fluttering around in the song titles, lyrics and moods: “Milk-Heavy Pollen Eyed,” “Skin, Warming Skin,” “Lion/Lamb,” “Crow/Swallow,” “Feather Lungs.” Then there’s “The Fire,” “Red Moon,” “The Rushing Dark,” which amply cover atmospheric conditions. Georgia O’Keefe set to music. It makes for a distinctive thematic structure as to the goings on here, but one doesn’t wish to pry in subject matter so deeply personal and private.

This is a strange album, more strange than Beasts of Seasons, which was thematically a pretty strange album in its own right. It’s an uneven record. Producer Joey Burns, in an attempt to broaden her sonic palette, sometimes lards Laura Gibson’s tender, sensitive songs with unnecessary flotsam. One cannot change her music merely by adding gratuitous ornamentation.

In many instances, “LaGrande,” “The Rushing Dark,” “Red Moon,” “Skin, Warming Skin,” for example, that ornamentation works. But there are many places where the production seems plain wrong—wrong for the songs and wrong for the singer.

At some point, Laura Gibson will want to decide whether she wants to be the modern version of a torch singer, like a high-prairie Edith Piaf, or whether she would prefer to create confections more oriented to the pop market. She is obviously a very talented singer and songwriter. But thus far in her short career, no producer has given any indication that he really understands what to do with her quirky abilities.