The Sparrow by Lawrence Arabia
The Sparrow is a moody, mellow, malevolent caress. Although New Zealand's James Milne and his musical guise Lawrence Arabia may not yet be recognizable names, Milne is not wholly new to the music scene. Perhaps the band The Brunettes rings a bell, or the knowledge that he toured as bassist for Okkervil River perks your ears in his direction, or maybe the soundtrack to Eagle vs. Shark is still on your list of “songs to find.” So, yes, although the name may not be common knowledge, it’s possible that his sound very well is.
Lawrence Arabia’s third and latest release, The Sparrow, produced by Bella Union, which follows Chant Darling and a self-titled debut, introduces itself with intoxicated poise and a wink of the eye. An atmospheric album, The Sparrow starts with the orchestrated sound of “Travelling Shoes,” the first single, a song that could change a listener’s mind if they ever pawned Lawrence Arabia off as just another obscure name in the musical stream. The whiny vocals of the verses in “Lick Your Wounds” contrast with the much more grounded sounds of neighboring lines. This is all layered over superb stringed and brass instruments that woo and lull in their drowsy elegance.
As a departure from Chant Darling’s beachy-swing sounds, The Sparrow is lurid. It’s almost sultry. One’s tempted to dub its sound as the score to some ambiguous indie flick — which may not be completely left field as Milne did appear with his other band The Reduction Agents on Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark in 2007. Not to say The Sparrow is merely background music, which would be an injustice, although there are qualities to that statement that can be justified. It’s a smooth and easy sound, soft and well-balanced. It doesn’t jar you. Instead, Milne creates an ambiance of thoughtful reverie — quiet in its own right, but brimming underneath.
“The Bisexual” fleshes out the brilliance of musical storytelling (a skill that is too many times neglected for beats that are catchy, up riotous, or dance-inducing). Oftentimes, it’s this delicate dance of story and sound to create vivid visualization that ends up lingering in a listener's mind the longest. “The Bisexual” is the tale of a dapper stranger, an intriguing seduction, and the classic love triangle. Lines such as: “why don’t you come over/so you can hear me?/You’re a snake in the grass/I don’t want you near me.” Later followed by “well I shuffled in my seat/and I had to admit it/he was more like me than me/and I couldn’t forget it” and “well he moved onto the sofa/and I avoided all his glances.” It’s a brilliant, slinky, horn-accompanied telling of sexual tension.
Many of The Sparrow's songs will transfer you instantly to a dimly lit jazz club circa 1959. The Beat poets, you are sure, lounge nearby on some dark, velvet-covered booth sipping bourbon in a cloud of smoke — right at that epoch of change between dancing the twist and an acid trip barefoot through the woods of suburbia when the Western world finally threw off its clothes and exploded in a cultural bang. Maybe it’s just the expatriates of the 1920’s and 30’s he’s channeling.
Remembrance seems part of the experience; remembrance that seeps through Milne’s high pitched vocals; remembrance through piano keys hit in the same evocative manner the Beatles once created for us; remembrance for swooning, trumpeted waltzes that conjure visions of the slow dancing gates of the 50s; remembrance for the effortless simplicity of things past, yet transcendent. With The Sparrow, Lawrence Arabia constructs sounds that fit seamlessly into the memorable soundtracks we vie for — songs that squeeze themselves quite nicely somewhere between The Virgin Suicides and a Wes Anderson film with grace. Milne has created an ideal companion for heady nights of contemplation.