The opulent songs of Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson (photo by Rachel Brennecke)

The Long Island, then-Brooklyn, now-Saugerties singer/songwriter Laura Stevenson splits her bandwidth just about evenly between a rambunctious, stormy and keenly melodic power-pop on one side and a delicate (though still stormy) chamber Americana on the other. In both modes, her work is distinguished by an opulence, an embarrassment of inventive vocal harmony; dramatic and non-traditional song forms that take you for a ride; and lyrics that dart smartly between acute detail and impressionistic flights of metaphor and pure language. It’s heady, wildly musical stuff, and my admiration for it is a matter of public record.

Everything about it says “pop,” and yet Stevenson’s work registers – to me, at least – as something more like art song. Perhaps it is the Chopinesque particularity of her melodic lines, her taste for dynamic and epic forms (even in tight spaces) or the frequently oblique and surprising twists in her lyrics. She might want to write perfect, compact pop songs that hit all the big targets, and the marketplace would certainly love her to; but her gushing talent breaches that narrow sluice every time. This suits me just fine. “The perfect pop song” is a genuinely dumb idea that tends to get all up in the heads of smart people, with stultifying consequences. In the face of boundless, exotic riches, we elect mundanity like a culture composed entirely of pundits and prognosticators. Smart people like perfect pop songs. I prefer music.

Anyway, that’s me. It’s not easy in here. In late December, Laura Stevenson released a “double single,” some of her first new music since 2015’s delightful rocker Cocksure. These two mysterious and emotionally saturated songs fall on the “chamber” side: acoustic, drumless, sparsely arranged with some light atmospherics, bowed strings and vocal harmonies that are, by Stevenson’s standards, restrained. It is a conceptually unified set of songs as well, released on the occasion of her mother’s birthday and reflecting on the harrowing experiences of her childhood. “I grew up watching my mom go through so much,” she said. “I just wanted to share this as a way of showing her my appreciation for everything she endured while raising me and my sister.”

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The slower, rhapsodic “The Mystic & the Master” arcs along on its gorgeous, patient melody until jarred off the rails and to a truncated halt by its violent concluding image: “her second man’s sucker punch.” “The Maker of Things” is brighter in tempo, less resolute in harmony, and more focused on a single, pivotal moment in a family history, seeming to describe a father/daughter standoff at a gas station. The songs share a striking undercurrent of violence, belied by Stevenson’s melodic acumen and pinpoint vocal precision.

Less stylized and genre-bound than some of her previous acoustic efforts, these songs suggest that a rich and mature chamber-folk vein is there for the mining. Both are now streaming in all the usual places. All proceeds from Bandcamp sales will go to Safe Horizon, a non-profit organization that supports and empowers victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking.

For more information, visit https://laurastevenson.bandcamp.com.

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