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Album review: Lea’s focused violin results in looping done right

The loop pedal has changed music and live performance. It’s undeniable. Over the past couple of decades, it’s made solo artists into bands (at least as far as the sonics are concerned), it’s helped bands fill out their sound without needing to add members, and it’s helped countless songwriters find new ways to build a composition. But, as with any tool, it can be used for good — or for evil. Stages around the world are now littered with musicians who think crowds should be enamored with them simply because they can overdub their own voice a bunch of times. At the end of the day, it’s still about performance and approach, as it is with every instrument.

Fortunately, Gaelynn Lea has done it exactly right on her debut solo album, “All the Roads that Lead Us Home.” The album is constructed simply — most of it is Lea playing her violin into an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man pedal, building layers one by one of her striking, tremulous playing. There are a couple of vocal tracks, but the record is basically just Lea doing live looping. This could get old really fast, but Lea smartly, tastefully builds her loops bit by bit, block by block, each step leading into the next. They’re little evolving symphonies.

The key is that Lea sees each of her tracks as a subtly morphing, fluid thing, and she starts with strong foundations. Too often, people who do a lot of looping forget that the building of each layer should also be musical and compelling on its own, not just as part of a finished ball of sound. Lea lays down simple bits and then interacts with them.

Take the first track, “Medley in D Major.” The opening figure is an ascending melody that has a rhythmic quality to it, and Lea uses it as an intro. After four bars, that piece becomes the foundation, and Lea organically adds different melodies on top of it with each pass of the loop. After a while, it starts to sound like an orchestra — different rhythms and notes colliding and eventually massing together in a hypnotic way. And then, before the track overstays its welcome, it fades out.

On songs like “South Wind” or “Halling From Eksharad,” Lea takes a more meditative approach, building loops that are more based on sustained notes and vibrato, loops that seem like she’s scoring a sunrise on a winter morning. Yearning, reaching melodies emerge from the wash of sound and then recede into the background. Chords are flittingly outlined as root notes collide with thirds or fifths or sevenths. It’s all very ephemeral and gauzy, and the tracks are easy to get lost in.

Lea’s two vocal tracks are nicely placed on the record. Her folky singing is of a piece with her playing, and it’s not jarring at all when it comes in, even though it’s the only other instrument on the album next to the violin.

“All the Roads that Lead Us Home” is a focused, vibrant piece of music by a person who is able to take a solitary instrument and make it sound like a full string arrangement, who can fill a full-length LP with mostly just those sounds and communicate fluently her heart and soul with only a few tools.

Artist: Gaelynn Lea

Album: “All the Roads that Lead Us Home”

Recorded by Jake Larson at Sacred Heart Music Center

Website: www.violinscratches.com

Personnel: Gaelynn Lea (violin, vocals)

Upcoming show: 8 p.m. tonight with Four Mile Portage and Brass Messengers at Red Herring Lounge, 208 E. 1st St.

Tickets: $7 to $10, rownpapertickets.com/event/2406244

Click here to listen to “Medley in D Major.”

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

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