Laura Gibson takes her chances on Empire Builder

Empire BuilderAfter moving to New York in the summer of 2014, Laura Gibson decided to take a step back from music, and promptly broke her foot. She'd just left behind the security of friends, family, and a long-term boyfriend back in Portland, and after spending the first two months hobbling around her new Manhattan apartment, it must have seemed like life had thrown all its upheaval at the artist at once. Or at least it could have, right up until the apartment was destroyed in a gas explosion the following March, killing two people. Gibson survived, despite being home at the time, though all her notebooks and song ideas had gone. Once again, it was time to start from scratch.

Empire Builder is named for the Amtrak route that took her to New York that summer, and the record's thematic tensions are perhaps unsurprising: home vs. adventure, stability vs. change, the little chances we take every day vs. not dying in a fiery blast. Lead single and opener "The Cause" is propelled by a surprisingly jazzy, workman-like strut, and while it suggests an interesting change of pace for album number four, it turns out to be something of a red herring. "Damn Sure" returns to the warm, approachable folk music that Gibson has built a career around, and she's got pretty good at knocking them out by this point, having written for Volvo, Microsoft, and the Humane Society. Thankfully, there's no chance of her music descending into the twee puddle of advert-friendly folk. If nothing else, the extraordinary musicianship of the band she's put together for this record (assembled from various parts of Neko Case, the Decemberists, and Death Cab For Cutie) seem incapable of producing anything approaching mediocrity. Composer and violinist Peter Broderick, in particular, lifts some of these tracks to divine stations.

Nonetheless, Gibson turned up in New York to study for an MFA in Fiction Writing, and it's the knack for painting pictures with her words that truly elevates Empire Builder above the work of her peers. The title track is the cornerstone of the record, those insistent words ("Hurry up and leave me, hurry up and find me again") written as the eponymous train took her further away from the one she left behind, released with a video built around footage of its coast-to-coast journey. It's an uncertainty played out in various hues across the record, from the impossibility of love ("Five and Thirty") to its inherent selfishness ("The Last One"), but perhaps "Two Kids" captures it best: "Maybe some day we're gonna trade our freedom for a better home," she sings to a gloriously 60s girl group sway. "But not today." For Gibson, adventure is always a leap into the unknown, with all the risk and uncertainty that entails. And it's worth it.

Release: 1st April 2016, City Slang


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