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Laura Gibson and Ethan Rose - Bridge Carols

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Artist: Laura Gibson and Ethan Rose

Album: Bridge Carols

Label: Holocene

Review date: Feb. 5, 2010

Ethan Rose has made a career – and some very beautiful music – out of manipulating old-time sounds electronically. Player pianos, carillions, music boxes have all provided the fodder for his dream-like collages. He chooses sounds that are layered with history, seeped in associations, so that even muted, stretched or sculpted via computer, they carry an emotional charge, glinting like memories in the drone and chatter of consciousness. Now with Portland, Ore., folksinger Laura Gibson, Rose has turned to the most evocative sound of all, the female voice, as the keynote for a new series of dream-like meditations.

He’s found his foil in Gibson, a songwriter in the Hush Records tradition of unaffected, naturalistic folk poets. For these songs, Gibson rifled through her old notebooks, picking out phrases and lines, improvising and embellishing them, then recording them in a variety of settings – both inside and outside. Rose then deconstructed the recordings, chopping them into pieces and recombining them, setting them against a subtle background of shifting tone washes, rhythms and textures.

The quality of Gibson’s voice—fragile, breathy, tremulously sweet—pushes these eight songs in surreal and beautiful directions. Her singing is manipulated so as to seem both archetypically human—the mother crooning children to sleep, the young girl humming to herself softly—but also charged with electric unearthliness. In the opener, “Introduction,” her tones dissolve into Ligeti-esque hum, frayed at the edges with blips and hisses, and on “Glocken” her voice is distilled into pure tone, all wordless warmth over jangle of bells and frayed harpisichord-ish arpeggios.

Yet elsewhere, things turn more linear and songlike, with Gibson singing whole folkish lines against a variety of half-heard accompaniments. In “Leaving Believing,” Gibson sounds a good bit like sometime colleague Casey Dienel as she flutters over bell-like tones of synthesizer. The lyrics are just warped out of shape, with lines about cutting a lover’s shadow and a long meditation on the similar sounding words “leaving” and “believing.”

The two best songs come near the end of the album. The half-sung, half-spoken “Sun,” is nursery-gentle in its runs of electric piano, its soft undulations of melody. It is nearly transparent in its purity, altogether natural in its phrasings, and yet deeply strange and mysterious. “Boreas Borealis,” just after, is slightly denser, but not less beautiful, punctuated by solitary, Fennesz-ish guitar chords and paced by the rhythms of a muted heartbeat.

Part of the beauty of Bridge Carols—and this is a beautiful record—is the way that the line between real and contrived, natural and synthetic, shifts under your feet. Still, the music seems redolent with memory, imagination and doubt, strange yet recognizably reflecting the most mysterious parts of the human experience.

By Jennifer Kelly

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