La Grande (pronounced in the way of the American West, without any hint of French inflection – “luh grand”) is a town just east of the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon where native Oregonian Laura Gibson found inspiration while writing the songs that would become her new album of the same name. Gibson describes La Grande as a place that “people usually pass through on their way to somewhere else, but which contains a certain gravity, a curious energy.” She’s done more than her own fair share of traveling, playing over 200 shows in North America, Europe and Asia since the release of 2009’s acclaimed Beasts of Seasons (Hush Records), and La Grande is, in part, an album about journeys and transitions.
The energy of the title track kicks off the record with a battering ram beat, hitting the ground like a herd of galloping horses. With a Tropicalia pulse, dirt-kicking distortion, whimsical woodwinds and heart murmur hooks on “Lion/Lamb,” and rail-jumping rhythms, majestic melodies and beyond-the-grave broadcasting of “The Rushing Dark,” La Grande plays like an imaginary film score. It’s an album about strength and confidence – about the tension between wildness and domesticity and the courage required to embark upon either path, about asserting one’s will rather than submitting – and it’s a significant departure from Beasts’ subtle meditations on frailty.
The thematic notion of aggressively taking matters into one’s own hands was at the front of Gibson’s mind during much of the process of developing La Grande, a period in which she also took on the task of transforming a 1962 Shasta trailer into a makeshift studio/private writing place. The twin projects of restoration and transformation – all that sanding, painting and do-it-yourself problem solving – seeped into her music, a sometimes surreal blend of styles that doesn’t belong to any particular decade or genre, but leaves the listener with the distinct impression that something old has been repurposed in a brilliant new way.
One reason the sound of La Grande is so purposeful is that, for the first time, Gibson remained in the producer’s chair throughout its making, bouncing between home- recorded vocal sessions – piling as many as 15 Laura Gibsons on certain tracks – and proper takes at Type Foundry Studios alongside engineer and good friend Adam Selzer (M Ward, Norfolk and Western) and some great players including Calexico’s Joey Burns, members of The Dodos (Meric Long and Logan Kroeber) and The Decemberists (Nate Query, Jenny Conlee), clarinetist Jilly Coykendall, and the drumming duo Rachel Blumberg and Matt Berger (affectionately known together as “Blumberger”). Don’t get the wrong idea, though. While La Grande ’s stage is shared with some very special guests, Gibson is at the center of every last note; contributing bits of bass, guitar, piano, pump organ, vibraphone, synthesizer, marimba, even a marching drum. The result is richer and more revealing than any of her previous records – two solo albums and an experimental LP with Ethan Rose – but it never loses sight of her start as a young singer-songwriter who felt more at home playing in an AIDS hospice (where she had a standing weekly gig for two years) than in Portland’s vibrant (and overwhelming) indie music scene.
Inspiration for Gibson’s work is also drawn from the geography and history of Oregon itself, as reflected in La Grande’s cover imagery. Raised in the logging town of Coquille, Gibson notes, “So much of my upbringing was tied to the forest – economically, visually, culturally.” The cover photo, revealing Gibson lit by a fire in the dark Oregon forest, conveys both the wildness and strong-willed-ness of the record. The blanket Gibson is wrapped in, which has resided in her family home as long as she can remember, also ties back to La Grande. Woven in the nearby Pendleton Woolen Mills, the ‘Chief Joseph’ design represents strength and bravery (Joseph was the Nez Perce chief whose people were eventually evicted by the American military from the Wallowa Valley just east of La Grande , but whose efforts both as a leader of resistance and as a peacemaker made him an icon).
Gibson’s previous work was praised for its timelessness, for the almost vintage quality of her voice. But of course her art and outlook aren’t solely influenced by the past. “I am someone who loves old things and could easily dwell in nostalgia,” she explains, “but I really felt this needed to be a statement about the future – about moving forward fearlessly – and I think the process of making the record and the finished album reflect that desire.” As Gibson sings on the ninth track of La Grande, “Time is not against us.”