LAURA K BALKE – Rumors and Legends

In March of 2011, shit was about to hit the fan for Andrew Morris. The sun was starting to set and I was sitting on this balcony in Germany drinking a beer, while this Estonian dude named Feliks shaved my head. The next day I flew to China.

This was one of those critical moments in my life – my hair was buzzed off. There was no going back. My hair wouldn’t grow back for another couple of months and I was going to be stuck in China whether I liked it or not. Nonetheless, it was the beginning of the wildest adventure I’ll probably ever have.

Laura K. Balke shaved her head a little while ago too. And shortly thereafter she began a crazy adventure. The former hairdresser worked on finishing up her newest album Rumors and Legends (to be released on Friday Nov. 18) and hit the road. The tour has taken her from Iowa to New York, but it comes to a close back here in Indiana, where Hoosiers are looking forward to seeing Balke and hearing her latest work.

Balke is a hard-working artist with a strong DIY mentality. She’s spent a lot of time playing in Bloomington, in Indianapolis and in the toughest terrain of them all: Northern Indiana. She writes her songs, manages her tours and even hand-made the cases of her last record Souvenirs. This kind of work ethic spills over onto Rumors and Legends and you can hear this simply in the sound of the record. Balke wound up performing dozens of takes and brought in the experimental-electronica musician Jon Autry to help record, mix and produce the album. Autry did a masterful job: the full drums, subtle synth orchestration and clean guitars, banjos, pianos and strings make for an exceptional listening experience.

Rumors and Legends tells a wide variety of stories. There are songs of self-scrutiny (“Turn the Key”), chance encounters with good love (“Two Ships”, “Sometimes”), failing relationships (“I Can’t”) as well as discourses on family (“Limberlost”, “As Small As We Are”). But the album Rumors and Legends, starts off ambitiously with one of Western culture’s greatest Legends: that of Homer’s Illiad.

The opening track “Achilles” references the particular point in Achilles’ life when his mother, Thetis, dipped the baby Achilles into the river Styx. The immortal waters were supposed to make Achilles invincible, but one small part of Achilles’ heel (the Achilles tendon) was not touched by the water and thus years later Achilles would die in battle because of an arrow wound to this part of his leg. Balke cleverly plays with this mythology in “Achilles” (“I’ve been so careful to keep / my heel safely in my shoes”), but turns the fatal arrow of the ancient Greek mythology into an undefined “you”. This “you” presumably refers to a lover. But unlike the arrow from Homer, which leads to Achilles’ death, Balke’s “you” is a “wonderful” thing, which causes Balke’s head to “spin”. Love for Balke is not necessarily a deadly arrow, but it is something that is confusing and she delves into the love’s confusion in the rest of the album.

In this way, Balke intelligently begins Rumors and Legends with a comparison between herself and one of the oldest figures in the Western artistic tradition. This is a bold comparison for a singer from Indiana to make, but it nonetheless expresses how relatable Balke’s songs are to even the most ancient of western stories. The songs that follow “Achilles” reflect with sincerity the difficult and confusing aspects of the most elemental of human feelings. Feelings that the ancient Greeks encountered thousands of years ago come back to life in Indiana via the words of Laura K. Balke.

Rumors and Legends reaches its climax with the masterful 7th track “Limberlost”. It tells the story of a daughter and mother searching for the house of Indiana author Gene Stratton-Porter. Stratton-Porter, a famous female novelist (A Girl of the Limberlost [1909]) and nature-lover, had lived and worked in her Noble County home, “The Cabin in Wildflower Woods”, in the early 20th Century. As the mother and daughter of Balke’s song attempt to find Stratton-Porter’s house, the complexities of their relationship unfold. The mother, a devout Christian, conflicts with the daughter, a woman “of this world”. In some kind of wonderful way, their search into Indiana’s past, their rediscovery of an Indiana artist helps the two figures heal a conflict of generations and religions. Can a search into Indiana’s past or Indiana’s art help heal the conflicts of today? This is difficult to say, but Balke seems to suggest that at least in some way, this kind of home-searching can help.

I have to continue to discuss the form of “Limberlost” a bit, because it is just brilliantly structured. At the beginning of the song we hear opening minor-key chords, a traveling-style folk guitar finger-picking rhythm and a galloping drum beat. This musical style, gives the opening of the song a feeling of searching, a feeling of adventure, which precisely matches the lyrics:

We took to the highway with a county map in hand

It’s been years in the making and we are executing plans

You read aloud from the Keeper of the Bees

As I try to focus my eyes on the road ahead of me

Shortly thereafter, the music shifts to a major-key sound, with strings supporting the chords. This creates a much more positive feeling. And Balke excellently incorporates a change toward more positive lyrics during this chorus.

We can have it all if you will just give me time

Cause Mama, Mama this world is mine

The lyrics and music of “Limberlost” compliment each other in a way that can only be described as superb.

The album continues after “Limberlost” to conclude with “Retreat”. A song that can be seen as a discussion Balke is having with herself: “If I can write just one song I want to sing / I can rest in peace”. This song is a nice conclusion to an album filled with a lot of self-searching.

In all, Rumors and Legends is a fantastic sounding album, with catchy melodies and relatable material. Balke does a nice job with nearly every song, but hits the Jackpot with “Limberlost”. “Limberlost” truly stands out about the rest of the tracks due to its execution and its compelling story about one of Northern Indiana’s forgotten heroes. I can’t say enough about this track “Limberlost”, it is one of the best tracks I’ve heard all year. There are also a couple of songs, which don’t really do it for me. For example “Sticks and Stones” seems a bit too childish, with its lullaby guitar and its lines like “Peroxide washes the germs away”. Sometimes the songs’ subjects seem to be a bit generic, but overall, Rumors and Legends is a solid album. Balke worked hard to do this album properly. I haven’t even begun to mention the fantastic album artwork Balke has put together. I could have probably written an entire article on the album art alone, but that’s for another time. There’s also the fact that her album can be bought with a corresponding hardbound book. And she hid golden tickets around Kosciusko County, which if found will grant the holder a free entrance to her show in Pierceton on Friday Nov. 18th.

Balke is writing some of the most accessible music in the underground Indiana scene today and she’s working hard at creating creative packaging too. She should serve as a real inspiration for other young singer-songwriters from N. Indiana like Ivory West and others. Check her out tomorrow (Thursday Nov. 17th) at Rachael’s Café in Bloomington (I’ll be there!) or on Friday (Nov. 18th) see her at the Old Train Depot in Pierceton. Nov. 18th is the official release date of Rumors and Legends. Pick up a copy at her live show or get it online.

November 16, 2011

Andrew Morris


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