Last updated on May 12, 2019
It’s always nice to hear from people again. Ira Lawrence was in a band called Even So in the mid-00s that I really loved–their EP Homecomings and Departures has some tunes that I still listen to, years later. So it’s great to hear his distinct vocal stylings in his solo project Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin. His six-song release Elegant Freefall showcases both his vocals and the titular mandolin to great effect.
This EP is composed entirely of mandolin sounds. But before you run for the bluegrassy hills, it’s important to note that distortion, reverb, heavy chord strumming, and pitch augmentation are the name of the game here. There are probably folk tunes buried somewhere in these songs, but with Lawrence’s voice and the remarkable arrangements considered, there’s little you can call these but indie-rock tunes. For examples of the gymnastics that the mandolin goes through, “Lucky Lucretia” sees the mandolin pitch-shifted down to sound like a distorted bass guitar. The title track layers multiple strumming lines on top of each other to create clouds of reverbed mandolin; “Babarbara” throws so many effects at it by the end of the tune that it sounds almost exactly like an electric guitar. I’m not sure how huge Lawrence’s pedal board is, but I would wager that it’s big or that he knows how to wring every last sound out of the few pieces he’s got.
“Warp Drive” is an example of a tune where the effects on the mandolin aren’t as central to the tune (well, at least at the beginning). He does put a pretty huge reverb on his own vocals, though, creating a unique vibe for the tune (similar to how Gregory Alan Isakov reverbs/gently distorts his voice). His vocals are part of the allure of this EP for me, as Lawrence’s tenor has a unique tone and timbre. There’s an edge to his voice that can’t be denied, but he uses it in a melodic way much of the time–he sounds both exasperated and under control. It’s the sort of voice that makes me think of the “dancing about architecture” quote: me trying to explain it cheapens it. Just know that his vocals are great and worth checking out for their own merits.
But it’s ultimately the songs that pull this together: they’re hooky, melodic, and unusual. With such a specific constraint (only sounds from a mandolin), the songs could start to sound similar–Lawrence avoids that pitfall. “Babarbara” is a mid-tempo pop song that could perhaps be a ’90s rock song in a different instrumental milieu. The title track is just as elegant as the title would claim, as the various mandolin lines combine with a careful vocal line to make a beautiful tune. “Jeremy Crackers” sounds like a lost Decemberists song, both in the vocal performance and the songwriting style; “Lucky Lucretia” is noisy and cool. They’re all tunes that make me want to come back to them.
Elegant Freefall by Ira Lawrences Haunted Mandolin is the rare “constraint project” that can be appreciated without knowing what the rules were. These songs stand up on their own as hummable, admirable, thoughtful pieces. I’d recommend this to anyone, but I think it would be particularly relevant for those who are interested in the type of indie-rock that pushes the rules for the sake of wondering what’s out there past them. Highly recommended.