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Album review: Gaelynn Lea expands her sonic palette on new album

It's curious that Gaelynn Lea would call her new record "Learning How to Stay," because she's been doing quite the opposite, it seems, what with her new appetite for touring. In the time since winning an NPR contest that brought her tons of attention, she has turned into a road dog, in fact. She's all over the world doing shows and hanging out with indie-rock stars. In only a few short years, Gaelynn Lea has entered the Gaelynn Lea business, big time.

Her new record reflects this. Whereas her previous releases were marked by a sparseness that found her relying on only a few elements — loops, her voice, her violin — her latest LP (which was helped along by crowdfunding campaigns that have earned her tens of thousands of dollars to spend on players and audio engineers) is a big step into a brighter, shinier pop direction.

This could be troubling news to fans of Lea's who found her more ethereal material to be a draw, but the truth is that the change doesn't feel jarring or unnatural. It just feels like she had a bigger budget and more hands on deck. There's still plenty of pensive, downtempo stuff, plenty of violin action, but it's augmented.

Opener "Bound by a Thread" is a bit of a misdirect, its slow burn perhaps suggesting a cinematic, gentle record is in the offing, but it's not long before Lea and her co-conspirators are dropping country licks and getting boot-scooty on "Dark to Light and Dark Again." "Our bodies, they never fully contain us," Lea sings, her perspective looking to encompass all perspectives, not just hers.

This is something that's noticeable throughout the record — Lea often eschews the "I/me/mine" way of lyric-writing for a more enveloping "we/us/our" voice. It's a nice trick, in that it makes her seem empowered to speak for many, instead of just one, and it's subtle enough to not be wonky.

On a song like "I Wait," though, she breaks that habit and gets personal: "Can you see me / way in the back, here?" she sings. "It's been a long time / can't get no service." A gentle bass pulse and handclaps underpin her vocal, building drama, which is eventually overcome by drums, multitracked Leas in harmony, and chiming guitar.

As can be expected from a record filled with Minnesota talent, it's all played and recorded very well, but the focal point is always Lea's singing, violin playing and songwriting. On an indie-rock number like "I See It Too," there are moments where a stock chord progression (which unfortunately recalls nothing less than Bush's insipid "Glycerine") threatens to underwhelm, but by the middle of the tune, Lea's sawing away on her instrument and saving the day.

Something like "The Last Three Feet" even comes off almost like some lost Fleetwood Mac deep track, only with more inspirational lyrics. There's lots to like on the LP, and the playing and singing is right on the mark. But there are times when it all feels a bit lightweight, just by a hair, and the album seems sunnier than its lyrics. This isn't bad by any means, but in another parallel universe, there's maybe a Gaelynn Lea who's making crazy experimental music, maybe following Low's lead. That could be fascinating. Until then, though, the poppier Gaelynn Lea is just fine and dandy.

Artist: Gaelynn Lea

Album: "Learning How to Stay"

Recorded at: The Pearl Recording Studio, Minneapolis


Personnel: Gaelynn Lea (vocals, violin), numerous others in various capacities

Click here to listen to the album.