[SOJOURNER SOUND] Listening to Laura Gibson leaves the impression she could be anyone or anything she wants to be. Though the Oregon native has, over the course of 10 years and six releases, gathered her Americana proclivities into something recognizably, trenchantly pop, on Empire Builder Gibson seems comfortable with an artistic identity forever in flux.
Named after the train line that towed her life from Portland to New York in summer 2014, the album is burdened with ideas of transition. Perhaps because of that, Empire Builder is easily her best record, wherein touches of Tom Waits-ian kitchen-sink percussion or patient vocal runs and strings (care of producer Peter Broderick) akin to Julia Holter's academic arrangements transcend the trappings of Gibson's singer-songwriter origins. Though wreathed in melancholy, Empire Builder is hopeful, confident that to look forward doesn't mean escaping the past, that forging a new identity doesn't mean cutting ties to the crucible of your former self. Which must be why an album made in thrall to an NYC move is populated by Pacific Northwest stalwarts, from David Depper to Alela Diane, each willing to help Gibson throughout the emotional breadth of her journey.
Like the trip after which it's named, the album does sag some in its middle stretch, and alt-shuffle "Two Kids" is almost too happy to dose proceedings with unnecessary levity. Still, Gibson is the best kind of writer, knowing that indecision need not lead to indulgence. "So hurry up and lose me/Hurry up and find me again," she sings on the gorgeous chamber-ballad title track—even whispering to unseen depths, she doesn't bury uncertainty in melodrama or huge sonic gestures. It's more than welcome: For music about movement both physical and existential, Empire Builder rarely sounds unsettled. DOM SINACOLA.
SEE IT: Laura Gibson plays the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., with Dave Depper and Daniel Charles Hunt, on Thursday, April 14. 8 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. All ages.