La Grande (Barsuk; Jealous Butcher)
I recently heard someone on NPR use the term “desert noir” to describe the band Calexico. Having never heard the term before, I immediately took to it. I liked the juxtaposition of the words, the barren visual connotation of the desert with the lush, velvety danger of noir. It seemed like an accurate way to describe the feeling of a desert highway’s cooling asphalt as the day changes to night and the nothingness gets disguised by the dark, leaving one with the feeling that a stranger could be very close by, plotting your demise.
“La Grande,” the single from Laura Gibson’s eponymous album, epitomizes desert noir. The tempo of the song matches that of a nervous heartbeat, the excitement of charging off into the unknown. You can “smell sage burn” in the twangy phrasing of the guitar. While the rest of the record doesn’t keep the same pace, it makes lateral shifts in the same spirit, like spider-veined cracks in the brown and dry and dusty desert ground. “Skin, Warming Skin” has reoccurring 7th-chord guitar parts, and “The Rushing Dark” lends a campfire vibe to the record, with a Theremin-like saw echoing behind the rhythm. This visually corresponds to the cover of La Grande, and contributes to the desert noir atmosphere. Variations on this theme occur on songs like “Lion/Lamb” and “Red Moon,” both of which sound more like desert samba, egg shakers and all. Gibson’s voice is always accompanied by layers of effects that paint her voice into the audio landscape.
Gibson’s songs often express an emotional resignation without being melodramatic. There is no grief in the “seeds that could not have been sown,” as Gibson sings on “Crow/Swallow.” “The Fire” is both “saddened with brave ideas” and able to promise that “if you’re high as the sun I will not question your wings.” This stark and stoic phrasing compliments the mood Gibson fosters on La Grande. There is nowhere to hide in the desert.
The poet Catherine Wagner writes, “Things moralize to meet / my expectations because I want advice / on how to live.” By a similar logic, Gibson makes her conviction that “time is not against us” sound believable. Of course time is against us. It is nothing if not against us. But there is a certain charm and tenderness to pretending otherwise.