Laura Gibson’s third album is named for a northeast Oregonhamlet just a few hours west of her Portlandhometown. Considering that Portland has, over the past few years, grown nearly as stereotyped as Seattle circa 1993, Gibson might be forgiven for picking this moment to put some distance between her and her roots. It is typical of La Grande‘s boldness and confidence that Gibson instead chooses to point straight back at them.
Luckily, La Grande isn’t a return home as much as the closing of a chapter. On her previous albums, Gibson cleaved perhaps too closely to the popular caricature of a Portland folk balladeer –Â prim, precious, possibly a little bit too pleased with the sound emerging from her own monitors. On La Grande, she pushes herself well beyond those strictures, and the results are frequently extraordinary. The title track, which opens the proceedings, is spooky, gothic country which gallops along like a pale fleet of ghost-riders. “Milk Heavy, Pollen-Eyed” is a frail, freaked ballad, containing a typically inventive description of a burdensome paramour: “Hanging off my hips like a worn-out dress.”
The backing is provided by a modest supergroup of modern Americana, comprising assorted members of the Decemberists, the Dodos and Calexico. They furnish Gibson with a vast palette, from which she chooses wisely, summoning something of the balladeering of Kristin Hersh on “Skin Warming Skin,” the sombre delicacy of Joanna Newsom on the beautiful “Crow/Swallow,” and fading finally out on “Feather Lungs,” hissing and distant and distorted, like a radio signal failing on a rainy night. You can never truly go home again, and in Gibson’s case, that proves to be quite a good thing.