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Earth Sciences

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Album Review

Earth Sciences is the solo debut by Laura Barrett, who is probably best known as indie rock's foremost player of the kalimba, a handheld African percussion instrument consisting of a carved wooden block with a row of tuned metal tabs, also known as a thumb piano. Yes, that sounds terribly hipper-than-thou, but the kalimba is a deceptively complex and interesting instrument (its traditional predecessor, the mbira, is as important to the music of Zimbabwe as the guitar is to rock & roll), and Barrett is a genuinely talented player of same. The complex rhythmic patterns and countermelodies of the instrumental "Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests, Part 1" will certainly capture the fancy of anyone who enjoyed the watered-down Africanisms of the Vampire Weekend album, even if devoted fans of the Nonesuch Explorer series might find it entirely inauthentic. Also sure to be intrigued: fans of acid folk harpist Joanna Newsom. Barrett is a much less mannered singer than Newsom, but she has a similarly free-spirited approach to her childlike vocal melodies, and she's an even more playful lyricist. The tongue in cheek opener "Robot Ponies" is a science fiction view of future improvements in pet care similar in tone to quirky psych-era experimentalists like the United States of America, and "Senior and the Blob" is even more surreal. Barrett goes full-on into bizarro land with a completely straight-faced solo kalimba reinterpretation not of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" but Weird Al Yankovic's parody "Smells Like Nirvana." Actually, the most freakish aspect of that song is how unexpectedly pretty Barrett makes it. (She also nails that breakdown riff that comes after the chorus, most impressively.) One's enjoyment for a solo album performed almost entirely on an instrument most folks don't know the name of — the album-closing "Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests, Part 2" is a synthed-out dub mix of the original instrumental — is likely based on one's feelings for the plinky, oddly-tuned sound of the instrument itself, but unlike many similar albums of deliberately quirky art-folk experimentation, Earth Sciences features several well-written songs, including the genuinely mournful lost-love song "Deception Island Optimists Club," as well as clear evidence of a functional sense of humor. It's fun, interesting, tuneful, and it could easily have been much, much worse.

Customer Reviews

hauntingly beautiful

I just saw Laura Barrett perform live last night in St. Louis as she opened for The Magnetic Fields, and may I say, I was pleasantly surprised, so much so that I purchased this album. Beautiful ostinatos with the kalimba, hauntingly beautiful vocals, and lyrics with a witty sense of humor. It conjured visions of Dorris Day and Phillip Glass. Please don't ask me how that is possible, just listen!


Born: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '00s

A virtuoso on the kalimba -- an African instrument also known as the thumb piano -- Toronto-based singer/songwriter Laura Barrett also plays with indie pop collective the Hidden Cameras. Barrett's own music is simpler, often consisting of just the kalimba and her voice, and often quirkier: she began her solo career with a very different cover of the grunge parody "Smells Like Nirvana," which she performed at a Weird Al tribute show. Her song "Deception Island Optimists Club," on the other hand, is...
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Earth Sciences, Laura Barrett
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