Say It Don’t Play It: Marian McLaughlin heaps knotty lyrics on her folk tunes.
Say It Don’t Play It: Marian McLaughlin heaps knotty lyrics on her folk tunes.

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Marian McLaughlin may reside full-time in D.C., but on Dérive, a sprawling collection of avant-garde folk songs, she sounds as if she’s wandered most of her life. “We’ve expanded the vacuum/With our incandescent light/We’ve kidnapped the nature of the night,” the musician warns on opener “Arcane Circadian,” sounding like a frazzled soothsayer who’s just stepped off the Greyhound, acoustic guitar in hand, to find her childhood city in shambles.

Dérive works best when its music is as complex as its lyrics, which are often knotty, verbose, and peppered with allusions to Greek mythology. Album highlight “Pluto” evolves from a simple piano line into a euphoric mess of strings, drums, and white noise as McLaughlin sings sorrowfully of the ice ball once considered a planet. The creeping, ominous guitar that underlies another standout, “Heavier-than-air,” reminds me of post-rockers Slint as well as Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” But as McLaughlin (an occasional Washington City Paper contributor) huffs and puffs through the song’s repetitive chorus, a playfulness in her voice cuts through the darkness.

On some of the more minimal tracks, like the seven-minute guitar-and-voice tune “Persephone,” McLaughlin’s archaic poetry becomes hard to digest. Her words seem grandiose and important on a noisy cut like “Pluto,” but without much accompaniment, they trample everything in their path, like Tolstoy with a melody. Only the lush album closer “Neskowin” nails the balance.

Dérive occasionally morphs into a baroque pop record, with splashes of orchestration and pastoral harmonies. But the first few tracks, specifically the Julia Holter-esque “Horse,” sound inorganic. McLaughlin’s lyrics conjure images of old cathedrals and unadorned nature, but early in the record, the production sounds more processed than naturalistic.

At its best, Dérive is folk at its most urgent and furrowed; at its worst, it’s dense poetry set to difficult music. Most of the time, it falls somewhere in the middle, a place that’s interesting but not necessarily satisfying. There’s no question, though, about McLaughlin’s burgeoning talents as a songwriter.

“I could’ve died/We all can die at any time/My heart could stop this very second,” McLaughlin sings at one point, fear in her voice. She’s right, of course. But if that were to happen right now, I doubt Dérive, despite all of its existential musings, would serve as the proper soundtrack.

Marian McLaughlin plays an album release show Jan. 16, 2014 at DC9.