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For most people, heartbreak leads only toward paralysis, marathon cushion-cradling crying sessions, or, at best, an uptick in unproductive activities like binge drinking and mucho Xbox-ing. For Bethany Larson, it birthed a musical career. Much like her promising debut EP from 2009, Larson's new full-length album, When We Reach the City, is a series of dispatches from the land of disenchantment, where broken hearts and dashed dreams lie in wait around every corner (she acknowledges most of her songs so far are "About a certain someone that was in my life for quite a while"). In the wrong hands, this sort of heart-on-sleeve songwriting can come off as mawkish wallowing, but Larson and her backing band, the Bee's Knees, have turned her open wounds into a powerful and unshakeable album.
The key to it all lies in Larson's voice, an enviably malleable melodic instrument that at times recalls the prairie twang of Kathleen Edwards and at others the soulful warble of former Roma di Luna frontwoman Channy Casselle. It's the perfect vehicle for her sad-eyed lyrical sentiments, which are typically front and center with essentially zero in the way of adornment ("For a year or two I've been sad and blue all because of you").
Larson's Sticks & Stones EP was content to let her voice do all the heavy lifting, but on When We Reach the City her band proves the equal of her formidable windpipes. Larson is quick to note the differences between the two records. "Sticks & Stones was just me and a guitar in a friend's studio," she says. "He later overdubbed all the other parts based on what he thought the songs needed. This was the exact opposite situation, since I had the band together and we had been playing out for a bit and now had my brother Chris in the fold. He plays guitar, keyboards, and sings. He's a good guy to have around."
Indeed, Larson's older brother appears to be the secret sauce that sweetens her tunes and takes them to the next level. His spot-on, full-throated harmonies make every chorus hit a little bit harder, while his guitar work transforms what could be a pedestrian loping ballad like "The Heavens Remain" into a subtle six-string showcase. It's hardly a surprise to learn that music runs strong in Larson's roots.
"My pop [a Baptist minister] had me singing in the church since I was five years old," explains Larson, 26, of her musical upbringing in Austin, Minnesota. "I was always in a bunch of choirs, harmonizing with other people. And I was lucky because Austin had a great high school program; my teacher had me singing arias and studying opera. When I started going to college [at Saint Paul's Northwestern] I was a music major and convinced I was going to become an opera singer. That plan changed when I realized how much more I enjoyed the outlet of writing my own songs."
The opera world's loss is our local music scene's gain, with Larson clearly relishing the ability to write and perform tunes that span multiple genres. While the bulk of When We Reach the City can be classified as primed-for-NPR-airplay alt-country, the quartet also makes intriguing detours into fiery blues ("Don't Want You to Know") and pristine acoustic pop (the horn-dappled "Good Thing"). The combination of Larson's elite pipes and emotional openness make for riveting listening, but while she's more than comfortable mining her heartache-rich past on record, carrying that feeling over to her band's increasingly busy gig schedule presents its own challenges.
"There have definitely been times when I've thought to myself, 'I'm never going to play that song again,'" admits Larson, when asked if her tunes occasionally hit too close to home to play them live in front of a room full of strangers. "Luckily there are other people in this band and they usually manage to get me to play through it, and I realize they were right. Ultimately that's part of being an artist—getting out there and baring your soul whether you feel up to it or not."
BETHANY LARSON & THE BEE'S KNEES play on THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 10, at BARBETTE; 612.827.5710