It’s the most complex form of easy listening, and that’s meant as a compliment. Tolling the line that blurs soft-core blues and jazz with acoustic guitars, sentimental flavors and an inherent beauty that only few can truly portray. You’re either born with it or you’re not. It can be exciting and bland, difficult and simple, intriguing and predictable.
Washington area musician Laura Baron has perfected this formula. Whatever it entails, whatever it embodies, the singer is a master of her craft, a craft, it must be noted, that is much harder to pull off than it first appears to be. Too often dismissed as a public radio trope reserved for only pretentious ears and middle-aged poets who wear multiple scarves during summer months, the easy listening, influences-heavy road is one often traveled, yet rarely conquered.
Yet with her latest 11-song set, “Heart of the Great Unknown,” Baron has no problem exploring the depths of that path. Imperative to her engine is that voice of hers, a chameleon-like tenor that has no fear of emotion or the bounds typically tied to genre labels. She transcends them with her deep, affecting croons, no matter the route, no matter the territory.
The best moments come when she decides to veer into the jazz world. Opener “Your Hands” is as moody as they come with its light guitar picking and elegant piano playing. By the time the brush-heavy drums appear, the dark atmosphere is already set for the arrival of some 1940s-era horns that only spice up the glamour these three minutes and 37 seconds exude.
“Tell Me More” and “Fever,” meanwhile, sound like the genesis of a “Mad Men” soundtrack. Her voice is seductive, slithering through the swing with so much confidence and imagination that even the scats never feel overdone. The former, a retrograde calypso-heavy original that beams sunshine, contrasts brilliantly with the latter, a 1956 Cooley/Blackwell treasure smothered in sultry smoke as Baron’s understated approach defines the performance’s murky mood.
From there, things morph into a more traditional setting. “A Little Note” is a fine version of adult-contemporary with its pop sensibilities and tight structure. The empowering narrative Baron’s voice tells over the sparsity of mandolin is perfect for a Lilith Fair stage near you. “Sometimes You’re Humble” and “Never Meant to Know” both take that simplicity and strip it down to tender folk with the addition of strings (“Know”) and the innocence of the singer’s purposely plaintive voice (“Humble”).
Even a nod toward world music succeeds. “Heart of the Great Unknown (Song for Ruchi)” might be lyrically suspect (occasional pushes for overt dramatics sometimes get in the way of Baron’s natural talent), but the Indian influences are as good as any you might be able to find this side of the beltway as they accentuate Baron’s versatility in tone. One tabla and a wooden flute later, and what you have is a great change of pace on a record not afraid to embark on roads littered with difference. Impressively, the track that precedes it, “Build Me a Fire,” works as a straight boogie that again makes good use of those horns. Like the seasoned veteran of the performance universe that she is, the songwriter blends into traditional blues competently and affectingly to get her point. It all adds up to a type of embarrassment of riches, her talents expanding the definition of the word “bounds.”
Why? Because Laura Baron’s latest record knows nothing of what they are. On an album devoid of all fear, the artist only rarely slips up, though when a set of songs appears this ambitious, it’s almost unfair to consider any possible discrepancies with a heavy hand. Folky. Jazzy. Worldly. Bluesy. Poppy. The record never overreaches, even when it seems like it should.
Indeed, the only thing easy about this kind of stuff is the listening. It’s the creating part that’s hard. And as “Heart of the Great Unknown” proves without any shadow of a doubt, Laura Baron has that part of the equation darn near perfected.
*** 3 OUT OF 4 STARS ***