Live Review: Laura Jean

3 November 2015 | 10:44 am | Tim Kroenert

"'How Melbourne can you get?' she asks, as she sips a coffee between songs.'"

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A beautifully clean progression of acoustic guitar chords marks the introduction to So Happy, and Laura Jean's Friday Nights At NGV set is officially under way.

The hour-long set features songs from each of Jean's four albums, rearranged for guitar, drums, two violins and a cello. The diminutive drum kit is built for mood, not volume, and typically the strings too are arranged to evoke unease rather than provide lushness. The Ferry, for example, from Jean's 2006 debut LP Our Swan Song has its already disquieting melody perturbed further by some offbeat staccato violin, which morphs into a legato countermelody between verses. Many of the arrangements are intriguingly anti-pop, resistant to hooks and easy melodies. The sound mix isn't great however, and Jean's voice in its lower register gets lost a bit. At the other end of the scale though, when she opens up with her chest voice in songs like the melodically dexterous I'm A Rabbit, I'm A Fox, it's sublime, and you wish she'd do it more. Still, it's seemingly not enough to catch the casual onlookers, who, during the sweet and simple First Love Song, can be heard babbling around the edges of the room while a smaller core of dedicated listeners in the middle tries to tune them out.

Regardless, Jean is as down-to-earth and disarmingly self-deprecating as ever. "How Melbourne can you get?" she asks, as she sips a coffee between songs; she suggests that you need to be an owl to be able to take in the whole wide expanse of the NGV function room from the stage, and, when a well meaning fan implores the chatterers to be quiet and listen, she replies, deferentially and enigmatically: "There's music everywhere. You can listen if you like." She tells a story from her mid-20s about her daily stroll home from Kensington train station, and a tree-lined stretch of road that was the highlight of the walk — "And that grew into a concept album based on the first book of the Bible" (2008's Eden Land). She then plays a song from that album, Anniversary, and it's a highlight of the set, its delicate vocal melody building to a howl that competes with the shriek of the violins. It marks the beginning of a strong finish to the set: next is a gorgeous arrangement of My Song, built around finger-picked strings and three-part vocal harmonies, and, to conclude, the childhood epic A Mirror On The Earth, with its heartbreaking, autobiographical lyric — "Mum made a mistake with LSD ... I felt more like an accident than a surprise" — leaving our spines tingling.

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