Flashback Friday: What Laura Says – Bloom Cheek

“Summer Sunshine And A Dream”

From time to time there is an album that completely suits the season upon which it is released and this season, that album is Bloom Cheek by What Laura Says. As psychedelic as it is indie pop, as clever as it is innocent, as subtle as it is intense, every minute of their near hour long sophomore release is an absolute pleasure to the senses.

Bloom Cheek opens with the hypnotic groove of “Training”, ringing guitars and a sample voice over, before the bass line kicks in, a dramatic guitar line soars to a pinnacle until the breathy, beautiful, harmonic vocals flow over you. It is a mesmerizing beginning to a dizzying album that tends to take the listener to brave new heights.  The vocals almost recall Steely Dan at their peak and that is meant as a total compliment. It also hints at jam band intonations, but it goes well beyond that and simply has more upbeat pop sensibility.  This song does exactly what a lead track should do—draw the listener in, which is clever because the listener has no idea the journey they are about to take with What Laura Says.

“Training” sweeps seamlessly, with a beautiful lyricless vocal segue, into the follow up track, “On The Fence.” With a jazzy groove over a psychedelic backdrop, pounding drums and the repeated refrain of “Where do we go from here?” this song makes indecision seem to be a pleasant place to be, in all honesty. The rhythm  and various percussion turn toward the tribal in the end before the song draws all its shores into a single tone.  That tone leads right into the title track, with Wilson-esque harmonies  circa Surf’s Up era Beach Boys blowing through the listeners  ears like a summer breeze. The keyboards and the rhythmic rolling vocals transport the listener to the same mythological place that, say “Feel Flows” takes you to and coming from this writer/audiophile that’s about the finest place anyone can be. As the lyrics say¸ “Oooohh what a damn, damn shame, but I like it that way.”

It may begin in a similar style, but “I Suppose” explodes with guitars, with a slightly ominous descent that contrasts to the soaring vocals and harmonies wrapping around your mind—either way you can’t control your body from swaying to this tune that will move you.  The sound of this song almost moves further back in time to recall the SMiLE-era sessions of the Beach Boys, with a piano intro akin to that of “Heroes and Villains”, to which soon is added flawless voices, followed by the dark guitars looming in the sky ahead.  It literally paints an aural landscape.  “If your plan is to disappear without a trace, you  might want a new name, you may need a new face,” the lyrics continue, “If this inherent courage is something you lack, you can buy a new ticket and find your way back” a ukulele or mandolin enters, the piano falls apart and the sounds of children playing roar to the front, someone says “shhhhh” and the solo piano returns with ominous notes that recall the guitar earlier, again akin to SMiLE in so many ways, the piano ends and we are left with an echoing loop of the sounds of children, seagulls and beach sounds slowly transmogrified until they are indistinguishable.  Perhaps, one of the most brilliant multi-part songs I’ve heard in ages.  In short it’s a goddamn epic pop masterpiece that would please the likes of Leonard Bernstein and make Brian Wilson weep because he didn’t write it.

“Keep Running Shoes Special” begins over that very same loop, but this time When Laura Says heads in a completely different direction with a rolling rhythmic guitar, that busts out in rhyme and time that swing sto a Dixie beat that gets into a groove that threatens to steal your soul.  It stands in stark contrast to the songs before it, treading into a very cool blues territory, not heard before on this album and it delights the ear for that reason alone.  This is their very close approach to “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers,  except it’s reasonably shorter and vastly better.  The seemingly scat rhythm lyrics, will have you exploding with “Now she’s a lawyer in East LA” for no apparent reason while you’re walking down the street and the song plays in your head.  More rollicking and hard driving than anything that may have influenced it, I can’t even imagine how freaking fun this might be to dance to when performed live. The pounding drum and swirling vocal round that closes it is worth the three minutes of attention alone.

Contrast is a key strength to the sound and sensibility, as well as the album structure of Bloom Cheek—nowhere is that more relevant or prevalent, as the transition from the rollicking, raucous “Keep Running Shoes Special” into the soft and sweet, near acoustic lolling doldrums of “Lines And Colours.” With a spacey electronic backdrop and acoustic guitar upfront, it mesmerizes the listener for nearly two minutes before the vocals come in and it’s shortly after that, the drums kick in lovingly, lazily delivered in line with all that is somehow serene, then at nearly the half way point it explodes into charged guitars and the band takes another path, perhaps to a darker forest—or a hedgerow that rocks out, with lyricless vocal harmonies floating atop like a strange peaceful sky.  This then devolves majestically into loops of sound and backwards tracks, closing the first half of the album with something that sounds like an amplified needle scratching at the end of a vinyl record. Amazing.

With an abrupt start on “Gardener Of Wonder” we return once more to sweet psychedelic pastiche. This time What Laura Says approaches a much more Beatlesque sound, heavy on the dreamy side like George Harrison from the 1960s wrote something for John Lennon from the 1970s to sing. What is unique is that they can recall these influences, yet bring something new to the table—they aren’t ripping anyone off, I imagine they simply take what they grew up with and make it all their own and with grand style, two-thirds of the way in a tidal wave roars through the wonderwall of sound and again we return to dramatic piano, whispered lyrics and loops of strange organic sounds: birds, water and wind, random harmonies and then finally down to a single piano key being  tapped repeatedly.

Sometimes what works for What Laura Says is the contrast within one song itself. “Roll Some Coin” is the sole instrumental on the album (excluding the prevalent segues between the songs themselves) and it is half Steely Dan jazz/rock jam and half hard rock solo excursion territory. It rolls back and forth a couple times between these two complimentary extremes, guitars screaming, before ending abruptly.  “I’d Dance For You” returns to the land of sweetness and light, with a slow mellow groove that feels good and transports one to an era when AM Rock was the dominating force on the Billboard charts. It’s a wistful, dreamy summertime love song, that says all it needs to say in three minutes, which is exactly the time it should take for a wistful dreamy summertime love song to say all it needs.

“Grocery List” is yet another fun take by What Laura Says on yet another genre, this time it happens to be reggae, reggae infused with sunshiney pop, but reggae nonetheless—the results are simply stunning. Think of the sort of beat Elvis Costello used on “Watching The Detectives” or The Clash with “Police And Thieves” then add simply sweet summertime pop vocals to that and you will get the feel of the genius at work here.  It is a positively upbeat song about missing someone sweetly. It certainly has some of the most charming lyrics on the album: “Took a walk through the garden in our underwear, it’s just an excuse to keep our lethargy busy for a while, you always said I need someone full of emptiness, I thought that was dumb, but I smiled just to give you a break. So where’d you go, I thought I knew you, my grocery list feels empty without you. I was out of breath and I was out of time, but you were out of your mind, yeah, you held on to your roots.” It may seem obtuse, but somehow, I think everyone can relate to that.  It’s certainly one of the catchiest hooks on Bloom Cheek and lyrically, well it’s possibly the best if only for its simplicity.

Starting with a sample that could be just white noise, could be flowing water, “Tape It Spoke” almost approaches that interesting borderline acoustic rock/country rock territory that slowly slipped into the minds of the hip and natural as the 60s eased into the 70s and would have been welcome on a Byrds album of that era or found as the third track of a notable hard rock band simply experimenting in sound at the time. Either way it goes beyond that sound as all of What Laura Says does and in the first part of this song it seems to tell the tale of a man shot down named Jasper Cory, but slowly evolves into a hypnotic  loop that gradually goes out of tune. What emerges after a moment of silence is ominous, minor piano chords thrashing at the four minute mark—an epilogue, both dramatic and sad, yet somehow recalling a familiar theme heard earlier.

That very piano, seems to suddenly jump alive into a bit of a jazzy jaunt as “Lambhair McDaniel” begins.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the grand finale of Bloom Cheek and like every other song on the album it if filled with just as many surprises, musically and the lyrics are perhaps vying with “Grocery List” as the most charming on the album, they are certainly the most fascinating, philosophically speaking: “If they tell you, you got it, how are you supposed to know? If you choose to run with it, where ya’ supposed to go?” and later “Would you show me the difference between what you mean and what you say?” In fact the entire lyrical portion of the song seems to just be wise wisdom from a perspective that cares about its subject, enough to pose these questions and maybe think about them.  And of course there is a surprise, when the music ends abruptly and silence abounds, until we are treated to a loop of what I can only suppose is a backwards recording of the dramatic piano themes heard earlier in the album.  Perhaps it’s not, but it is a wonderfully intriguing way to end one of the best albums of the year.

What Laura Says’ Bloom Cheek is brilliant from start to finish, it is little wonder that Devendra Banhart loves this band, it’s difficult not to love them. One thing is for sure, if you want an album to share this summer with, whether chilling poolside late at night or rolling around in the bright sunshine day, Bloom Cheek is the one to have on hand, accept no substitutes.

(An edited version of this review originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of JAVA Magazine.)