Earth Sciences EP
(Self-released/Paper Bag; 2005/2008)
By David Ritter | 28 February 2008
Laura Barrett is teetering on the edge of the diving board above the pool of Can-rock greatness. For swimmers the rewards are sumptuous: the cover of Eye Weekly perhaps, or the ever-popular no money whatsoever. I jest—Barrett is the latest up-and-comer in a Canadian music scene that threatens to turn into a semi-permanent embarrassment of riches. What seemed initially the work of a Pitchfork-suckled two-headed You Forgot It In Funeral beast has morphed into an entrenched royal family of indie awesome complete with inbreeding and the holding of multiple titles. Sir Owen Pallett, the Duke of Hidden Camerastan, Earl of Arcade Fire String Sectionburg, and High Priest of Final Fantasia. I’ll spare you the drivel, but you’re all familiar with the dual or treble lives of Sarah Harmer, Amy Milan, and Leslie Feist. Let me proclaim the ascension of Laura Barrett, member of Henri Faberge and the Adorables and the Hidden Cameras, to the throne of the next great Canadian music maker.
But not yet. Though Paper Bag Records is re-issuing her first EP, originally recorded in 2005 (her second, Ursula, is available on Ta Da! Records), she’s just getting started. The EP is six tracks of her thoroughly unique solo performance featuring only voice and kalimba—a small african thumb piano she plays with great dexterity. More than any other aspect, Barrett’s kalimba playing separates her from her peers, and not just because she’s the only one playing it. The intricacy of her arrangements is what keeps this from being a one-trick pony (rim shot), as her deftly floating arpeggios separate into contrapuntal voices that switch from melody to harmony and back again. Sounding simultaneously organic and futuristic, her playing exemplifies a dichotomy that inheres in the title Earth Sciences. This package of a female voice and a seldom-heard, plucked instrument will inevitably remind listeners and critics of Joanna Newsom, but with the possible exception of subjects whimsical and fantastical, the artists share little. Newsom’s nasal tones are nowhere to be found in Barrett’s sumptuous alto; her breathy tone recalls local sirens Emily Haines and particularly Sarah Harmer, though once again the similarities end there.
Barrett has garnered many rave reviews of her live show and it is indeed the perfect introduction to her work. At her best Barrett exhibits a strange poise, with compositions dense in spite of their minimalism and subject matter ranging haunting to ludicrous. Her beamingly awkward stage presence and the backyard looseness of her performance tip the balance vastly to the warm side, making all the jokes charming and the full moon tones less eerie. As she continues to tour the continent—with stops at Canadian Music Week and South by Southwest next month—she will further stoke the desire of concertgoers for a recording that matches her singularly winning live show.
Unfortunately, this EP is not it. It is caught between two Barretts: Barrett the homespun mega-nerd inside joker and Barrett the promising, already accomplished newcomer. Among its six tracks only 3 are full-fledged Barrett originals, with one instrumental, one remix not available on the original release, and one cover to round things out. Of these, the instrumental is the strongest as Barrett’s thumbs duck and weave and litter the track with fascinating intricacies. The remix is a largely forgettable reworking, and its club-thumping bits add to the overall jokiness of the EP. The uber-quirky subject matter combines with track titles such as “Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests, Part One” and the laughter that opens “Senior & the Blob” to give the whole thing an air of a labour-of-love christmas gift for a tightknit group of dork-ass friends. The cherry on top is the cover of “Smells Like Nirvana,” Weird Al’s ancient parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (I had the cassingle!—Ed.) Perhaps hilarious to insiders, it is somewhat puzzling to the uninitiated and serves only to testify to the apparent genesis of Barrett’s solo kalimba act in a Wierd Al tribute night. I’m glad this exists as a historical document (and the kalimba arrangement is killer), but that doesn’t make me want to listen to it.
Against this homespun throwaway humour stands her fetching, bizarre, labyrinthine songs about the apocalypse and robot ponies who only live to please. Seriousness enters not just in Barrett’s precise phrasing and knotted playing but in the creepy absurdity of receiving christmas presents that assure you, over and over, that “you know best.” Within “Robot Ponies” is the sort of humour that doesn’t rely on an external context to be hilarious: the ponies swim enthusiastically because “we made those babies air tight.” In fact, they’ll play “tennis, golf, and basketball / these robot ponies do it all / they fuckin’ love it all.” The three originals Barrett sings are each serious and funny in their way. They’re steel-bright, beautiful songs that need only the warmth of her live presence to be truly great.
More of a quixotic document of the half-serious origins of an emerging artist than a significant musical achievement, Earth Sciences holds a thrilling generosity of promise within all its silliness. Much of it is lovely in its own right, but more in the manner of an appetizer than a meal and thus I salivate in anticipation. The full length, as her myspace blog would have it, is in the works.