In Brief: Lauryn is an intriguing singer/songwriter with a gift for sprawling, thoughtful, and slightly whimsical baroque pop arrangements. This album’s only real flaw is a few excessively bloated tracks that create the illusion of the album having more content than it actually does.
Lauryn Peacock is one of those seemingly obscure artists whose work makes me feel like I’m being invited into an imaginative new realm of music. Her piano based, sorta-baroque pop style is fleshed out with hints of jazz and rock here and there – and there are probably a lot of artists in my music collection I could say that about (most notably Vienna Teng and Brooke Waggoner) – but there’s a unique quality to the way she approaches that make a lot of her songs feel like unique landscapes unto themselves. Among the ten tracks on Euphonia (which appears to be her second full-length album, from the limited information I can find about her out there on the web), you’re not likely to confuse any two with each other, which I always take as the sign of a versatile songwriter. A few are very upbeat and direct, while others are more slow and meandering – it’s the kind of record that envelops you in a mood quite well even when you don’t understand at all what she’s singing about. Reading in her bio that she’d been touring with the likes of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and her fellow Philadelphia natives mewithoutYou doesn’t really give any indicator of her solo sound, so it was certainly a pleasant surprise for me. And while I have great respect for those artists, I can’t name a single track on either of their most recent records that stands out to me as immediately as a few of the highlights on Euphonia do. (Farther back in their discographies, most definitely, but that’s a separate discussion.)
Now if that sounds like high praise, you should also be warned that there’s a somewhat significant downside to Euphonia, and it might actually be related to the very same musical aspects of the record that get me excited. While I love the slow burn mentality and the unexpected instrumental flourishes on several of these tracks, a few of them seem to deviate from their expected structure just for the sake of deviation, wandering off from a compelling rhythm or melody in ways that seem tacked on with uncertainty, as if she wasn’t sure how to end a song. Some do the opposite and are quite repetitive, not deviating enough to make all five or six minutes worthwhile even if a track started out very promising. This would be a really minor nitpick if it only affected a song or two, but then I look at this album’s ten tracks, realize that two of them are not terribly memorable interludes, and it dawns on me that the remaining eight songs don’t quite add up to the enjoyment I’d get from an album with ten three-to-five minute songs that had similar instrumentation but didn’t overstay their welcome. So while I think there’s some excellent artistic talent on display here, there are times when I feel like a song is self-consciously complex just for the sake of demonstrating what Lauryn can do, regardless of how well it actually serves the song.
Another interesting aspect of Lauryn’s music is her vocal style, which for me is both a blessing and a curse. At first glance, she has a clear, kind of pretty voice, and she enunciates well enough that even while I’m puzzling over what her lyrics actually mean, I don’t get hung up on wondering what the actual words are. (Remembering them later without a lyric sheet handy is still tricky, but that’s true for a lot of stuff nowadays that I end up purchasing digitally because it’s a small indie release and physical CDs are hard to come by.) At times she’s reminiscent of female vocalists from the 60s or 70s who I’m not knowledgeable enough to name specifically, whose singing styles are less frilly and more “conversational”. She can drop a nice falsetto into a song when it needs it, which at times reminds me of Natalie Merchant, but otherwise she can actually be a bit plainspoken, to the point where it might sound a bit flat (I don’t mean off-key, but just lacking in emotional weight) when you’re expecting the voice to match the drama of the music surrounding it. I have this complaint about Sara Groves on a lot of her records, though I’d say Peacock is a lot more musically adventurous than Groves, so I’d never think to compare the two for any other reason. I figure it’s an area where Peacock could learn to evolve over time, but it’s not a big enough flaw to be seriously distracting – only when the music comes up a bit short on a track or two does this really bother me.
Overall, Euphonia is a lot like a really good EP in that it covers a lot of ground and showcases an artist’s versatility, but the songs for the most part don’t really feel like they comprise some sort of unified statement or experience. The nagging feeling that something’s missing is why I’ve graded Euphonia relatively low for an album whose sound and style I’m generally pretty excited about. I’m confident based on what I’ve heard so far that Lauryn is capable of streamlining some of this record’s faults without compromising her appealing quirks and unique vision, so I’ll remain optimistic at the prospect of giving her much higher grades in the future.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, Lauryn has no connection (that I’m aware of, at least) to singer/songwriter/producer extraordinaire Charlie Peacock. Though given the idiosyncrasies of both artists, it sure would be fascinating to hear them work together.
1. All My Mind
The first track has me hooked immediately. The rigid rhythm, quirky chord progression on the piano, and the strings, horns and woodwinds doing whatever the heck they feel like in the margins establish a nice balance between the pensive and the playful. There’s a lot going on without it ever being too cluttered, which is a fine line that Lauryn tries to walk throughout the album, but this might be one of the spots where she does it best. The song seems to be about devoting all of your time, energy, attention, etc. to someone you love, and it’s a great introduction to the album as it reminds us of the value of learning to appreciate someone or something (perhaps even the music itself) by paying careful attention to it over time.
2. February Song
I wouldn’t expect to get dropped into a stark piano ballad at only track 2, but there’s something about how that catches me off-guard that I find oddly appealing. Lauryn deliberately deviates from the rhythmic sound she established on the first track, using percussion only to create this distant, “damp” rolling cymbal effect that makes me feel like she’s singing in an alleyway drenched with puddles the morning after a storm. Tempo is a bit of a fluid concept here, with each line of her lyrics moving forward whenever she feels like it, which gives the song a feeling of tense anticipation. Lyrics such as “I feel like an outlaw in my own skin” add to that feeling of waiting and wanting to be somewhere else other than this cold, unfamiliar place. She hits some lovely high notes here, and this one may be one of the best showcases for what her voice can do. What’s weird about this song is that I feel like it’s building up to something that never comes. I keep expecting it to congeal into something more structured, and just where I think that might show up as the flutes begin to trill and buzz about while the strings are being busily plucked at the end of the song, that turns out to be the climax in and of itself. Waiting for something that never happens may well be what the song is about, I guess.
3. Six Month Quandary
The pacing of this one feels all wrong. Dropping a ballad at track 2 is fine, but then having an even mellower song with no real climax at track 3 just makes the record feel like it’s squandering an otherwise promising start. The mild-manner melody being fingerpicked on the electric guitar really isn’t enough to hold my attention, and as much as I hate to say this, Lauryn’s vocals aren’t at their best here. The way she holds the notes is just bland and unappealing. I hear lots of interesting instrumental tidbits in the background here, but what’s in the foreground really doesn’t do it for me. Even when she brings in stronger backing vocals and a thicker instrumental backdrop near the end of the song, the melody never escapes the sluggish pattern it started with. The song is just repetitive. There’s definitely some interesting stuff going on in the lyrics, though. “Would you say I laid my body down in vain?” “Who you are is not a star. And what you think is not enough.”
There’s definitely a quiet tragedy in the waiting process here, and I wish the arrangement of this song did more to make us feel the agony of her apparent quandary.
This track is just a minute or so of vague whispers and dissonant instrumental noodling. It’s distracting and unnecessary. It would have killed the momentum built up by the last few songs, but since the overall pacing of the album is pretty much stillborn at this point, I guess there was nothing to lose.
“They knew after that, they made the final call, it ended at a draw. Frozen on the track, she waited on the wing, she waited by the phone.” Now that’s an intriguing opening.
This track does some rather fascinating things with jazzy piano melodies, an ominous electric guitar, and purposefully conflicting rhythms – rigid, mid-tempo 4/4 for the verse and a swingy 6/8 for the chorus. It throws me off balance in a very good way. As in the opening track, there are flutes and horns here, clinging very loosely to the central melody and rhythm as they add color in the margins. The arrangement of this song is beautiful and tragic at the same time. There’s some trouble later on, however. “You wouldn’t tell the truth, you were telling lies” is a bit of a redundant chorus lyric that feels like an anvil dropped into an otherwise thoughtfully written song. And the whole thing begins to wear out its goodwill somewhere around the five-minute mark. It nicely wraps up around minute six with Lauryn returning to the verse melody and then falling silent – nice little bookend there. And then, for no apparent reason, there’s a completely unnecessary guitar outro for another minute or so. The song already felt like it took its time to wind down, so what was the point?
6. Wounds Grow Grass
The slow piano waltz here really remind me of Over the Rhine‘s song “Hush Now (Stella’s Tarantella)”. That’s one of my favorites by a band that tends to do a lot with very sparse arrangements, and that’s where the similarities end, because as we’d expect by now, Lauryn throws in a lot more instrumental layers. Plucked strings! Horns! Even a bit of synth! Woodwinds that have a bit of a “New Orleans funeral march” thing going on! These various sounds are mildly disorienting, but I think they contribute to the tipsy mood of the song, so I’ll put them all in the “pros” column. Over in the “cons” column… well, I have problems once again with the “flatness” in several of the notes that she holds. There’s a frailty to the way these notes waver and just sort of sputter out that some might find appealing, but for me, it gets grating due to how much it’s repeated. I feel like this song actually might be more of a standout if it weren’t surrounded by two tracks that were also over six minutes. There’s another unnecessary outro here, where her voice and piano just sort of wander away from the rhythm, then the song comes to a false ending, then the strings come back in for an extended riff on the main melody. I really wouldn’t mind this if it was the only such surprise on the album, but she’s pulled this at the end of two long songs in a row, and it wasn’t that great of a trick the first time around.
7. Quiet Moments
Despite being the third track in a row that is over six minutes long, this is pretty much a perfect pop song. I’m transfixed pretty much from the first few seconds, as she lays down a percussive piano rhythm, and then some playful strings join in and a steady drumbeat gradually builds in intensity, eventually exploding into a defiantly up-tempo chorus. It takes a while to get there, but I’m never impatient with along the way, because she drops several cues that she’s building up to something intense and just plain fun.
It’s ironic that a track called “Quiet Moments” is the busiest and most upbeat track on the album, but I do feel like there’s been some sort of an emotional breakthrough here. “It takes a lifetime to be a gentle man” is the lyric that gives me the biggest hint as to what might be happening – it feels like for much of this record, things haven’t been right in a relationship between two people, and now they’ve finally found themselves on the same wavelength and suddenly it’s a beautiful romance. This song is one case where I’m OK with tacking on a brief outro after the “conventional” ending, because it really puts a punctuation mark on the end of the song.
8. Pluie (Rain/Interlude 3)
Did I miss something? Where was Interlude 2?! This is a pretty, but not terribly meaningful, piano and guitar melody that fills space for a minute or so. There’s nothing wrong with it, but as I often complain on albums like this, when it’s one track out of ten, it really has a lot more riding on it than when it’s one out of twelve or fifteen.
9. Hearts on Fire
This one’s very bare-bones – the central instrument is a slowly plucked acoustic guitar, and the piano’s mainly just there to accentuate these two chords as the melody loops back around. It’s extremely ominous, almost like something out of an ancient ritual, and yet despite the slow, repetitive nature of the song (seriously, it’s just a verse melody over and over, I don’t even think there’s a “chorus” per se), it actually turns out to be one of my favorite tracks on the album. As I try to think of possible interpretations for the lyrics, each one that comes to mind more dreadful than the last. “I hope your hands are strong. I hope your heart is not. I hope the world is wrong. You’ve become a little child.” Stuff like that gives me the best kind of chills up the spine. I really appreciate how Lauryn knew how to give this song exactly what it needed, and nothing more. She brings it to an exciting climax simply by double-tracking the vocals to make herself sound like a mini-choir warning of dire things to come, and then she has the good sense to leave the song on a cliffhanger rather than overthinking the ending like she did in a few other spots.
10. Song in C Up North
On the album’s final track, I finally get a sense that neighboring songs might actually belong together, due to how nicely the piano melody and the strings pick up right where “Hearts on Fire” left us hanging. Just as I’m getting used to this, the song takes a hard detour into this jaunty, almost circus-y 6/8 rhythm, and throughout the song there’s a noticeable conflict between that and an up-tempo 4/4. The song, deliberately unsure of whether it’s a piano ballad or a big, bellowing baroque pop opus, dips in and out of peaks and valleys like a rickety train about to fall apart. The refrain to this one completely baffles me. “When will the mountain arrive?/Will it always survive?/Will we always make you happy?” Since this is what gets repeated over and over as the album reaches its grand, final climax, it’s especially bewildering, since I assume this must really mean something to her but the intended meaning or mood isn’t completely resonating with me. She throws pretty much every instrument she’s got at this one, which means it’s the most cluttered thing on the album by far, and I can see the wall of sound and the rickety pace of it turning some people off as it wears on past the five minute mark. It sort of reminds me of what would happen if Anathallo tried to play No Doubt‘s “Tragic Kingdom” – it’s not quite that chaotic, but you get the idea. I think there’s a fine line between an emotional climax and just repeating yourself frantically, hoping to dig up something cathartic from it, so that’s why I’m docking a few points here, plus there’s yet another piano outro tacked on here that seems dropped in from an entirely different song, since it’s not reprising anything we heard earlier in the album. This could have been much more satisfying if it were a callback to an earlier song. Despite my nitpicks, I enjoy most of what this song has to offer. It’s definitely the most idiosyncratic thing on the entire record, so I’m glad she left it for the end.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All My Mind $1.75
February Song $1
Six Month Quandary $.50
Wounds Grow Grass $.75
Quiet Moments $2
Pluie (Rain/Interlude 3) $.25
Hearts on Fire $1.50
Song in C Up North $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: