Best Less is More of 2014

One of the hardest things to capture in poetry is a moment of beauty. Come on too strong, and it becomes cliché. Approach the moment too softly, and no one has any idea what you’re getting at. The key lies not in judging the moment for your audience, but in creating a space that accepts every interpretation they might have. You have to welcome to your most personal moments people you don’t know the first thing about.

Today we feature Bluebird by Dawn Landes.

Never heard of her? Elegant is an understatement. Landes’s ability to evoke emotion in the space of a note change is rare. I remember NME criticizing Bluebird early in 2014 as “too nice” and lacking “grit.” It is too nice. It’s not interested in grit. The song “Bluebird” is about watching a bluebird. “Bloodhound” is about encountering a bloodhound on a forest trail. Sometimes these things don’t need to be complicated. You know how much nice music there is that’s still accomplished and evocative? Not much.

“Try to Make a Fire Burn Again” fills a void I hadn’t realized artists like Jewel and Natalie Merchant had left. A personal ballad about the kind of yearning you bravely keep quiet around company, it perfectly captures the essence of struggling to comprehend a romantic loss. There’s a peace to Landes’s struggle, however, an acceptance that understanding it completely might be counterproductive. It’s a mature quality lost in the industry’s more melodramatic love songs.

“Bloodhound” captures a southern gothic bluegrass that takes most artists into swampy, dark material. Landes keeps it light, and the balance between those darker, gothic hues and the lighter Americana tones feels like the song equivalent of dappled shadow on a warm day in the woods. You can compare it to Patty Griffin or Joanna Newsom, but it’s less self-serious about reflection, enjoying the moment rather than getting wrapped up in it.

The first four songs on Bluebird are as strong a start as any album had in 2014. If there’s a masterpiece in them, it’s the last of these, the soft “Heel Toe.” It treads into the echoing, empty stage sound of Neko Case that makes a song serene and haunting at the same time.

What’s best about Landes is that – while there are a ton of supporting instrumentals here – they restrain themselves from stepping on each other. They don’t overwhelm her voice, there’s zero wall of sound to compete with here. You can tell what each player is doing, the musical space he or she takes up, and appreciate how each instrumental intersects.

And that’s what I like about Landes. Those individual instrumentations, her voice, the clarity of it all, gives her songs a tremendous sensory quality. I can close my eyes and feel so much more than just the sound.

In this, her songs act as musical monuments, if such gentle songs can be called monuments. I can inhabit her songs in a way I fail to inhabit many moments anymore. I’m writing this on a computer looking at a screen. Her songs feel like the wind and the sun on my face, the rustle of the trees overhead, the possibility of quiet moments of peace – even during the frustrating parts of life – that I don’t allow myself as often as I should. Landes gives us bookmarks for individual thoughts and moments, and they allow me to ever-so-briefly transport myself into them.

I compare Landes to more accomplished artists – Jewel, Merchant, Griffin, Newsom, Case – because I think she covers a remarkable amount of territory by creating clear, “nice” music. I like my grit more than most, but I don’t think I could inhabit Landes’s songs if they weren’t this kind and welcoming. There’s no judgment in her music. There’s just acceptance. That’s nearly impossible for an artist to capture.

– Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

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