Every so often an album comes along that irreversibly changes who you are as a music listener. Those albums that break you down to your barest bits and force you to realize something about yourself and the world and the people in it. Everybody’s got one of those albums. This one is mine.
Laurel Brauns never really managed to emerge from the fog of singer-songwriters clinging to the U.S. West Coast. True to the genre, her 2001 debut album, Swimming, was recorded in basements and released to little fanfare. But there’s a peculiar magic wreathing the album that makes Laurel stand far above the litany of artists straining to be loved. Her album is a simple one. It’s a young woman and a guitar, spiced with violin, mandolin, and cello provided by her musically inclined friends. Nothing revolutionary. The reason Laurel Brauns is a fantastic singer-songwriter is simple as this: she is a fantastic singer and a fantastic songwriter. Her singing is the best I’ve ever heard. Her tenor, cloaked in the barest lilt of an Irish damsel, is somehow both vulnerable and powerful, angelically innocent and viscerally experienced. Her phrasing is masterful. Laurel’s voice is lively and dynamic without resorting to oversinging, providing pathos in the subtle changes of volume and inflection living in the crags of her lovely lyrics. Hear the desperation and palpable angst in her voice in the bridge of “Saturday Night”. Her vocal talent allows her to seamlessly play the role of a harrowed chronicler (“Lifejacket”), an adoring daughter (“Angels in Her Eyes”), and the ol’ tomcat Tom Waits himself in her interpretation of “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”.
Laurel Brauns’ songwriting is simple but effective. Earthy, resonant guitar chords and sparse percussion frame the sweep of her voice. The instrumentation almost never takes center stage – but the melodic violin lines that do sometimes surge forward hold their own against the tour-de-force of Brauns’ voice. “Shelter Me” is the finest example of the marriage of Brauns’ singing and songwriting abilities. “Shelter Me” is one of a very small handful of songs that I consider to be perfect. Listen to how impossibly emotive those opening guitar chords are, and how bittersweet the violin’s echo of those lines are. And listen to the collusion of desolation and hope in Laurel’s words and in her voice. The phrasing in the song’s final turn perfectly encapsulates these competing themes; the final lines, almost whispered, with little instrumental accompaniment, sound like the hopelessly devastated final breaths of a dying woman. But the lyrics – “I’m drowing in my own drunk love / but I might last if we wait for sunrise” – imply a fiercely hopeful resistance, persisting only on the strength of its own convictions in recapturing the “simple smile” that once provided endless comfort.
“Lifejacket” is the dirge of the album, and one of its best offerings. The most atmospheric song of the album, it tells the tale of a homeless young man in Salt Lake City suffering from PTSD with the help of a choir of violins. “Saturday Night”, the catchiest song of the bunch, gorgeously counterpoints irresistible melodies with a ballad of the young and disillusioned.
Although Swimming is Brauns’ most consistent and highest quality release by some distance, she has continued to release great material in the years since her debut. “Dancer”, on Periphery, evokes the same haunting beauty that made her debut such a masterpiece. An otherworldly cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” can be downloaded free of charge on her website. “James”, from the 2011 release House of Snow, shows Laurel in a different musical position. Full and present instrumentation, complete with a banjo, organs, and electric guitars have replaced the delightfully raw and sparse soundscape of Swimming. But she arranges the ruckus to great effect, sparing the heaviest parts for the chorus, allowing her voice to ground the music – although her bad habit of needlessly oversinging post-Swimming has reduced the impact of her incredible voice somewhat.
Laurel Brauns’ music has had an impact on me that only one other non-metal artist has mustered (hello, Jim Croce!). I hope that in it you may also find shelter.