It's almost a decade since Greg Laswell first darkly won his way into our hearts in the form of Good Movie. From day one, he has shown himself to be the master of the deft lyric and cutting notes that turn simple songs into treatises on the human heart.
Slowly, the world has stood up and taken notice. Laswell's work has increasingly been featured in TV and film, which is of course one of the best ways for musicians to make a living. You might have caught him in Grey's Anatomy, Castle, 90210, Army Wives or Dollhouse.
The Houston Press first heard of Laswell during our regular column on the music of HBO vampire drama True Blood for the Rocks Off blog.
With Elizabeth (of Elizabeth and the Catapults) and Shellee Coley, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 24, at Dosey Doe Coffee, 25911 I-45, 281-367-3774 or www.doseydoe.com.
"I managed to watch that episode without knowing my song was in it. I had to go back and watch it again!" says Laswell via e-mail. "I'm a huge True Blood fan so I was thrilled!"
Now Laswell is on tour promoting his fifth studio album, Landline. Rather than having to make a trek all the way to Austin to catch him like normally, though, this time Houstonians only have to make it to Spring, with the amazing Shellee Coley on the bill to boot.
Judging by his latest release, Laswell has lost none of his melancholy brilliance, and cements his place as a rare talent. The album is lush and full of myriad jangling strings and Ben Folds-ish piano lines that wrap Laswell's voice in black armor.
Laswell is a notorious breakup-song artist, but gone is the despair of previous releases. Instead there is a lightness and just a wee bit of hope that nonetheless bears the depth of his more scarring tunes. It's still drinking-after-dark music, just a bit closer to dawn.
No song on Landline sums up this new attitude more than "Late Arriving." Comparatively sparse and closer to country than the rest of the record, it's an apology with which anyone can probably identify.
Who among us can say that we've never failed another person through our absence? There's a special kind of guilt involved with letting go of a person and just walking away that feels like its own private circle of hell.
Laswell sums up those feelings perfectly in the chorus of "Late Arriving": "Go ahead and take your time while I repay wasting years of mine." It's the final confession of a selfish heart, and an acknowledgment of the irreparable damage you can do to people's personal timelines when you remove yourself from them.
"I disappeared for a couple years there, from a lot of people I loved," says Laswell. "The song is a sort of apology, I suppose."
Laswell moved his studio to a remote section of Maine to record Landline. Despite a certain feeling of running away, there's also a new air of camaraderie and cooperation in the songs.
Sara Bareilles, she of the hit tune "Love Song," helps Laswell open the album with the earwormy duet "Come Back Down." The two have previously toured together, and have tried to find time in their busy schedules to put a song together. They finally did, and it couldn't be a better bit of pop heartbreak.
Another track, "Dragging You Around," almost didn't make it onto the album until Australian singer Sia lent her voice.
"I had sung all the parts, and it just hung kind of flat to my ears...plus the lyrics came across pretty harsh, which they are, but I wanted to mask it a little bit more," says Laswell. "Sia's part had a way of smoothing the edges off a bit."
Hopefully, at some point in the future Laswell will release the original demos for "Dragging You Round." The Landline version has almost an early Meat Loaf vibe, something like "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" minus the whole bit about being a werewolf.
Sia's poppy exuberance does sand off the edges of what really are a scary set of lyrics: "What a shot, what a blast the night of the gun?" It does sort of give the whole "dragging you around" message a new meaning, especially when Laswell shrugs off any questions with a simple "I did it again."
It's as if James Blunt ripped off his face to reveal Nick Cave underneath and then started to come at you. The song has a serious edge that Sia manages to smile away until it's already buried in your back.
More than anything else, Landline shows the evolution of Laswell from an angsty singer into a more nuanced emotional musician. He says that at some point in the past three years, he just had to let go of the hurt and the person that he had been when he penned his most famous tracks.
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You'll never hear it in the Top 40, but a good song about a healed heart and lessons learned can mean as much to a listener as the knife tunes that get all the platinum sales. What you get in Landline is 11 songs about learning to live in the world after it has hurt you. It's not victim music; it's the opposite of that.
Before, you listened to Greg Laswell because someone broke your heart. Now you listen to him because you've learned to live with the pieces. It's the better place we've all been promised.
"I like it when songs change meaning," says Laswell. "One of my oldest songs, 'What a Day,' has changed meanings several times over the years. It started out as a sad song when I first wrote it, but I've heard of people playing it during the birth of their baby, walking down the aisle, etc. There's a pretty different energy all the way around now.
"It took me a little while to find how to use it, though," he adds. "I threw away a lot of songs to get to this record."