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ALBUM REVIEW: Gaelynn Lea's 'Songs' among best local releases

Gaelynn Lea’s had a heckuva 2016. The Duluth-based violinist and singer found herself with a significantly higher profile after being selected in March as the winner from more than 6,000 entries in National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest. The prize: a performance as a part of NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, where notables such as Wilco and Graham Nash — just to name a few — gather to play intimate mini-shows in NPR’s offices. In addition, Lea was asked to head out on the road with NPR, and it’s likely that the victory has led to all kinds of doors opening for her, career-wise. One glance at her busy upcoming national tour schedule, and it’s easy to assume that the win was life-altering.

Lea’s latest release is, like her 2015 debut solo album “All the Roads That Lead Us Home,” a collection of simple, spare songs that depend mostly on Lea’s often-mournful fiddle and sweet -yet-weathered voice. Again, Lea focuses on alternating between instrumentals and vocal numbers, taking her time with each, patiently letting them unfurl. One of the main pleasures of Lea’s music — as with the music of Alan Sparhawk, her frequent collaborator and partner in The Murder of Crows — is that it doesn’t seem that it’s in any hurry to get anywhere, and it respectfully asks you to settle in a bit, put down the cellphone and listen.

The first song on this new EP, “Watch the World Unfold,” seems to spell this out in intention and tone, as well as lyrically. “Pushing up, pushing up / through the dirt, just like a seed / but you’re never quite a flower / you feel more just like a weed,” Lea sings, over sustained violin notes and clean, sparse backing guitar. “Who are you, really? / are you so important? / take a look around / and watch the world unfold.”

She’s got a real knack for a lyric that has some bite to it — that line about flowers and weeds is both darkly funny and empathetic — and she also is great at making suggestions for course-correction in her music. Many folkies these days ascribe to greatness but fail because they rely too heavily on strident, heavy-handed proclamations or judgments. Lea, it seems, is gentle in spirit, yet she’s unafraid to take a stance. That’s a balance that many get wrong.

Lea’s song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” is the one she performed in her Tiny Desk submission video (YouTube views are around 433,380 and counting), and it’s the centerpiece of this collection. It begins with a minute of washes of cello-like deep violin, and adds pizzicato overdubs and subtle bells.

“Don’t tell me we’ve got time,” Lea sings. “The subtle thief of life / it slips away when we pay no mind.” This is good stuff, especially when she drags the word “mind” out and sings it slightly sourly for effect. “We pulled the weeds out ’til the dawn / nearly too tired to carry on / someday we’ll linger in the sun.” The song’s chorus is a simple declaration of love, but it takes on an urgency it wouldn’t otherwise have, given the implied (and overt) creeping darkness all around.

It’s a truly gorgeous, heartbreaking song, one of the best to come out of Duluth in the last handful of years, at least, and it attracted attention from NPR for good reason. And, while it’s definitely the standout, this isn’t to say that the other traditional fiddle tunes and originals that surround it on the EP aren’t worth the time. Indeed, the whole thing is quite impressive, although the music/poetry combo “Breathe, You Are Alive!” isn’t a necessary listen and probably would’ve been better as an instrumental, or as a deep track on a longer, more sprawling album. As one of six, it’s too much of a sore thumb and undercuts the melodicism that is otherwise so prevalent.

But when you’ve got a song like “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” you’ve already got more than most artists can muster on a whole album, and that is a big achievement. Once again, Lea proves she’s a powerful craftswoman, a spellbinding singer and a violinist with a solid understanding of how to conjure a mood.

“The Songs We Sing Along the Way” is definitely one of the best local releases of the year.

Artist: Gaelynn Lea

Album: “The Songs We Sing Along the Way”

Recorded by Zachary Hollander at The Pearl Recording Studio, Minneapolis

Website: www.violinscratches.com

Personnel: Gaelynn Lea (vocals, violin), Alan Church (guitar, piano, bells), Paul Tressler (vocals)

Upcoming show: 7 p.m. Tuesday with Minor Moon at Red Herring Lounge, 208 E. 1st St.

Click here to listen to “Watch the World Unfold."

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

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