Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lara Michell - Petals


I can tell you that I first heard Lara Michell singing as a member of the Stolen Sweets, and it’s true. But it isn’t very helpful. Petals is something else entirely. It might be tempting to call this a folk album; after all, most of the tracks feature two acoustic guitars and vocals, and not much else. But this too is misleading. The first song on the album features keyboards, and has a beautiful trumpet part. The last song features the guitars, but has drums and bass, and also includes cello and flute. In between, the arrangements are more spare, with twin acoustic guitars featured in most of the arrangements. . Michell is a writer who needs few words, and never wastes the ones she uses. The songs do build and then pull back, but they are not overly adorned. There are three background singers here, all female, and they all sing in a low soprano. What is remarkable is how well the voices blend, becoming one instrument. Put the whole thing together, and you have an album of beautiful, atmospheric music. But Michell never loses track of the emotional part, and the songs ring true.

Petals opens with The Bluest Clown. This is a song that comes from a dark place. Its narrator is in despair, following either a painful breakup or the death of a lover. The rest of the album offers varying degrees of healing, but the pain never entirely goes away, and the future holds many potential relationships that are approached with extreme caution. A Fleeting Lucid Moment offers a bit of a reprieve; here is a relationship that seems to be working, although there is still some caution on the part of the narrator. The song opens with just a nylon stringed acoustic guitar and solo vocals. On the first chorus, we hear background vocals for the first time. Then the second verse arrives, and a steel stringed acoustic guitar joins in, with a part that seems to echo the first guitar. This creates a musical statement that two are joined as one, but there is also a musical tension between the two parts. All of this is very subtle, and it registers emotionally, even if the listener is not consciously aware of how the effect is achieved. And subtlety is the key to how this album works. There no outbursts here, but the album as a whole paints a detailed picture of heartbreak. And yet, it never becomes depressing, because Michell’s narrators always have hope.

In the End It’s Over starts folk-like, with just vocal and strummed guitar, but the other guitar joins in, and then bass and drums, and soon we have a breezy pop song. It comes as a breath of fresh air towards the end of the album, providing a lightening of the mood at the perfect time. The album ends with The Chauffeur, a Duran Duran cover. It is much wordier than Michell’s own songs, and it is the longest song on the album, but the style of the performance fit’s the album perfectly. And the middle somewhere, there is a beautiful song called The Girl in the Garden; this one features a call-and-response between Michell and her background singers that shows just how well Michell knows how to make use of the human voice. Overall then, Petals is a work of subtle beauty and great intelligence, all in service of the song, and all emotionally true. I have now heard Michell in two very different musical contexts, and I can’t wait to hear what she does next. (Actually, I expect to have that here soon, but more on that when it happens.)

Lara Michell: A Fleeting Lucid Moment

Lara Michell: In the End It‘s Over