Laura Smith,
Everything is Moving
(Borealis, 2013)

Laura Smith's Everything is Moving wells up from a deep, dark place. Few albums would dare to open with the unrelentingly bleak "Lonely Waterloo." Some listeners will recognize it as a version of a familiar broken-token ballad absent its last verse, the one that restores life and love as the soldier home from war at last identifies himself to his sweetheart who has failed to recognize him and believes him dead. The final verse envisions not joyful reconciliation but "clay cold lips" and "sightless eyes on lonely Waterloo." It would be unlistenable if it were not so unbearably lovely in its performance.

In the liner notes Smith, a Canadian folk singer who returns to recording after a long absence, hints at life struggles that could have sprung out of a Victorian novel, issues of birth, identity, rootlessness, dislocation, separation. Everything carries the weight of hardship and tragedy into a project that, for all its shadows, pushes Smith onto the stage with her light shining. This is not much like an ordinary album or or even, one might judge, an ordinarily exceptional album.

It's not unrelieved gloom, mind you. Smith's own tradition-flavored "John Keane's Boys" celebrates a family of "strappin' fine lads" who take their pleasures in full. Elsewhere, sorrow is leavened with strength, given expression in Smith's steely voice, unlike any other that comes to mind. My initial thought was of Judy Collins, but soon it became clear how wrong that was, though Smith and Collins both are able to blur the distinction between popular song and art song. The arrangements on Everything amount to folk music brought into the chamber, but even on the three numbers attached to string sections, the sound is airy and lean, the focus always on the story Smith is telling.

The songs, 10 of them, draw from Smith's originals and from composers immersed in the old sounds of Canada. Alex Sinclair's "Magdalen McGillivray," a true story exquisitely related, and Micheal O h Ogain's "Horses & Plough" seem fallen out of time, as if sung in the voices of ghosts. Smith's own compositions tend mostly toward the introspective, albeit not in the manner of the dreaded sensitive singer-songwriter. Hers is a grown-up's wisdom, acquired hard. "What Goes Around," about "the puzzling relationship I had with the man who raised me," is the closest the album gets to what might be called a country song, but it's far too wry and ironic for that. The album's title derives from a line in the magnificently evocative "The Blues & I."

When I review an album I've newly heard and liked, I wonder if I will be listening to it after I've finished writing about it. CDs wash up in my mail and flow through my ears in a near flood. Sometimes it's hard to stay afloat, to keep even the strongest of them in memory for very long. Everything is Moving, though, feels destined to remain in mind and ear, I am certain, alongside a very few select others. Let me put it this way: It does not move casually through the heart.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 June 2013

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