Being a total geek, each year, I keep running genre-specific lists of albums I buy, hear, like or love, and I have done so for as long as I can remember. I’m flattered that friends usually request perusal of said lists at year’s end, and in the hope they’ll investigate albums I consider unmissable, I highlight the real gems in yellow. True to form, a fellow obsessive asked to see 2022’s rundowns a short while ago. I told him he must wait until they were complete, as there are still around fifty releases from last year I’ve yet to listen to. As I’m willingly always eyebrows-deep in CDs and downloads, this is fairly typical, but with expansive taste and a never-ending sonic smörgåsbord upon which to gorge, it can lead to situations like Lauren Oxford’s wondrous eponymous debut somehow evading my keen radar at the time of release.
Although this will be of no consolation to the artist, had I heard this auspicious offering upon its issue at the end of October, it would’ve effortlessly landed in my 2022 Top 10 (although at the expense of what, I don’t know). Anyhow, that’s circumstantial, so better late than never, and at least I’m fortunate to have this platform on which to rhapsodize to the wider world about this album’s abounding charms. However, before diving into the music, there is much of interest to mention concerning Lauren and her album’s personnel.
First of all, 26-year-old Lauren is a filker. For those to whom the term ‘filk music’ may mean little or nothing – which until now included me – Wikipedia describes it as ‘a musical culture, genre and community tied to science fiction, fantasy, and horror fandom.’ Lauren further explains that most filk folks ”define it as anything a filker plays in a filk circle, which broadens it considerably to include Irish/Celtic and session tunes, Pagan music, general folk (where Lauren falls), ‘nerdcore,’ and much more.” There seem to be other aspects therein, which overall, I will admit to finding a tad bewildering, but just as with subgenres within any musical form, it’s a fascinating subculture bringing together like-minded individuals. To that end, all nine musicians joining Lauren here are members of the filk community, without whom Lauren states the album “would not have happened.” Furthermore, they are all women, a line-up being, she explains, “an intentional choice made by a very stubborn lesbian.” I could say plenty about each contributor, but as they have all released their own music to be found on dedicated Bandcamp pages and/or websites, rather than distract from the matter in hand, the curious should investigate Jen Midkiff (lever harp, harmony vocals), Sunnie Larsen (violin, viola, harmony vocals), cellist Betsy Tinney, bodhrán player Brenda Sutton, Jen Distad (bass, shaker, tambourine, drum programming), Cathy McManamon (recorder, bamboo flute), Dr Mary Crowell (clarinet, bass clarinet), Dr Cat Faber (mandolin, octave mandolin), and Dr Sally Childs-Helton (cajon, djembe). In doing so, you will encounter some quite beautiful material and amazing characters.
So it’s an intriguing ensemble, for sure, and what its talented components bring to the table is a sumptuous baroque/chamber-folk backdrop against which Lauren’s extraordinarily pretty, soul-bearing songs unfold. The effect of these ten collaborators is truly magical, grabbing the listener within seconds of the mesmeric, heartrending opener, Magnitude. From the off, the beauty of the melodies never drops, not one iota; the arrangements remain consistently elegant, and Lauren’s pure voice enunciates every word with crystal clarity. Believe me, this is an entrancing listen, and that it was laid down in 12 days as a debut from an artist who appears to have arrived fully formed in her mid-20s makes it all the more remarkable.
Also a talented photographer and member of the folk quartet The Starlight Darlins, Lauren hails from the small town of Sevierville, TN – the site of a statue of Dolly Parton, who was born in neighbouring Pittman Center – and she wrote eight of the nine songs there between 2016 and 2022. The remaining song is a gorgeous, musically faithful, though slightly lyrically tweaked cover of Joan Shelley’s Siren from her 2012 Ginko album. Lauren cites Shelley as a huge influence alongside Karine Polwart, Laura Marling, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, and Neko Case. While traces of each colour parts of her compositions, I would add Fenne Lily, Aldous Harding, Nadia Reid, Laura Veirs, and Vashti Bunyan as further sonic comparables, so if anyone reading has a place in their heart for any of these artists, Lauren Oxford – the album – will knock your socks off.
Having read of Lauren – the artist – as a filker in advance of hearing her music, I was unsure of what themes to expect in her lyrics, but appreciating her ‘general folk’ place in the filk community, I was somewhere between surprised, relieved, and confused to find that she documents standard human concerns. Magnitude, for example, is a breakup song –
This gaping chasm – how It happened, I can’t fathom
Written during the pandemic (which, if you’d not noticed, is ongoing), the delightful yet anxious Days Numbered is both an affectionate tribute to Lauren’s (now) nonagenarian grandparents and born of the pain she felt when separated from them as everything began to go crazy in 2020.
On Death is arguably the album’s most powerful track from a lyrical perspective. Written following a relative’s funeral, it’s deeply poetic and a no-holds-barred song in terms of emotional content –
Beneath her skin, the blood ran not, the toxins did their job: with makeup and formaldehyde, time itself was stalled.
And, yep, there are, as Lauren states, “extremely gay” love songs: Sleeping, Streetlight Birds, and What Rings True all delightfully capture the dizziness of being in love and finding ‘the one’ (her wife Emma) in the most eloquent and heartfelt language. Such articulation, married to Lauren’s gorgeous melodies, prompted one of her Bandcamp subscribers, ‘doomsdaydreamin,’ to comment, “this is the greatest album I’ve ever listened to.” I wouldn’t go quite that far; it’s a cert that when I finally send those 2022 lists to my buddy, Lauren Oxford will be among the select few titles highlighted in yellow.
Order Lauren Oxford via Bandcamp: https://laurenoxford.bandcamp.com/album/lauren-oxford
The Starlight Darlins – https://starlightdarlins.bandcamp.com/album/the-winfield-sessions-vol-1
Lauren featured in Folk Radio’s Lost in Transmission No 92 alongside Juni Habel, Sheila K Cameron, The Hermit, Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin, Nat Brookes, Milkweed, Bill Callahan, Fiona Soe Paing, Rev Simpkins, Black Ox Orkestar, Nathan Salsburg, James Yorkston, Joseph Decosmio, Sunburned Hand of The Man, Denis Cassiere and more.
Leave a Reply