Monday, April 22, 2013

Album Review: Laura Stevenson - Wheel

Album Grade: A
The adage goes ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ but I would contest that a lot can be gleaned from an album cover. Laura Stevenson’s Wheel for example, implies the cyclical. The stages of the moon adorn the four corners while the focus is a circle of the same trees in various stages of bloom focused around a bare axle. The message is simple: everything is self-repeating. The days will change, the blooms may die, but they will always come back, glowing as vibrant as ever.

The motif of rebirth is especially poignant on a breakup record like Wheel. It’s not an album where the emotional torture of the writer is immediately palpable due in large part to the shiny façade of the instrumentals. Indeed the Cans, who were dropped from the group’s banner before the album was released, provide an extremely complex and dense instrumental backing, running the gamut of power and tenderness. The roster has expanded to include a pianist, various stringed instruments and a smattering of tambourine. Sometimes, this richness and variety has Wheel sound like a backwoods jam session as imagined by Walt Disney; a rowdy bunch of characters all scrambling to get a word in edgewise who all happen to combine in perfect harmony. It shouldn’t work out, but it does, and it sounds awfully cheery when it comes together.

Of course all credit for the group’s harmony goes to Stevenson herself, as it is the unity of person that keeps Wheel rolling along without spinning out. Getting caught up in the instrumentals would be an easy trap to fall into were Stevenson not such a compelling character.  Her voice can give the most mundane activities gravity and communicate perhaps better than her lyrics the emotional reeling she has done. It’s the inflection on the chorus of “Runner,” the palpable sadness on “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the sensitivity of non-canon opener “Renee” that really drill home both Stevenson’s emotions and appeal; she’s a very relatable voice with a good sense of how to balance description, metaphor and introspection.

The juxtaposition between the instruments and Stevenson is astounding. Stevenson is at times icy, always calculating, obviously having carefully chosen her words. She is precise in pitch and diction, holding court over the charming instruments that try to keep the tone light. Thus, “Sink, Swim” may be the song best representative of the album as a whole. The peppy guitar riff along with the quick snare taps and accordion harmony playing the part of “Swim” while the lyrics, chock-full of nature-based imagery, describe prolonged pain: the “Sink” portion of the program. The interplay between two traditionally opposed factions is the kind of subtle brilliance that characterizes Wheel, and also what makes it such a great successor to the far simpler Sit, Resist.

In the context of the cover, Stevenson is the frosty winter to The Cans’ brilliant summertime, with individual songs serving as the autumn and spring, the marriage of components from both. With the centralization of Wheel around its trusty axle Stevenson, we understand the winter of her discontent is the focus, with the sunshine of the instruments sometimes peering through the clouds to alleviate some of the grey skies. The process, like a year, is self-repeating, with enough variance within the individual songs to keep Wheel from falling into a Groundhog’s Day groove despite having no noticeably stronger tracks.

Wheel isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, but I’d wager it’s the first album on which the specific elements come together with such force and perfect unity. You’d be hard-pressed to find a spot on the album where an experiment doesn’t work: the instruments don’t battle each other, there’s no extraneously long section of a song- in fact, some may leave you wanting more- and the vocals are always pitch perfect. It’s rare that a breakup album is executed with this level of precision and maturity, but it sure is pleasant to hear. Only Laura Stevenson could write such mesmerizing, palatable schadenfreude.  
1. Renee
2. Triange
3. Runner
4. Every Tense
5. Bells and Whistles
6. Sink, Swim
7. The Hole
8. Eleonora
9. The Move
10. Journey to the Center of the Earth
11. Telluride
12. L-DOPA
13. The Wheel

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