Laura Love is best known as a folk artist with an edge, aptly described as “Afro-Celtic” or “folk-funk.” She’s ventured into other genres too; she was a member of satiric feminist group Venus Envy, for example, and they even formed a side band, a punk rock outfit called the Surly Bitches (that’s Peggy Platt as “Spike,” and Love’s in the blonde wig). Once a fixture in Seattle and on the festival circuit, Love moved to a more rural area and put her performing/recording life on hold about a decade ago (though she did find time to write a follow up to her 2004 memoir You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes, and publishing Nights in Tents: On the Front Lines of the Occupy Movement in 2016).
It was also a period of personal struggles for Love; in a press release, she describes her new CD as “an attempt to make sense of the most brutal three years” she’s ever experienced, including the loss of her sister to suicide. It gives She Loved Red a somber cast; it’s a sparce album, with subdued instrumentation that underscores the strength of Love’s vocals and enhances the emotion as she sings.
The title track is Love’s tribute to her sister, a haunting song that’s etched in pain, with a delicate musical backing; it’s absolutely heartbreaking. “Et Tu Brute,” “Your Greatest Hits,” and “Better Than That” which focus on relationships, are also streaked with sadness, if not as wrenching as “She Loved Red”; they’re more songs of sorrow and regret rather than emotional devastation.
There’s also some righteous anger; not a surprise coming from the politically progressive Love, though it’s leavened with a measure of hope as well. She puts her own spin on “We Shall Overcome,” adding new verses drawn from the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty (and those lines about the huddled masses yearning to be free are even timelier today). “It’s the Water” is her gentle admonition to take care of the environment — or else. “Trouble So Hard” deftly segues from personal problems to those of the world’s. It’s the album’s most danceable number, with that trademark funk from Love’s thumping bass. It’s also a song of encouragement, with Love singing of resistance and assuring us that “You and I together/we have the power.”
One gets the sense that the album’s running order is meant to take you on a specific journey. It’s bookended by the same song, “I Still Believe,” presented in two different versions, “Unplugged” and “Plugged.” The first line sets the stage: “It’s been a mean cruel season,” and though the number is a song of resilience, in the “Unplugged” version Love’s singing alone, a lonely candle shining in the darkness. But by the album’s end, there’s cause for celebration; the record’s songs affirm that you can endure, you have survived, and you’re not alone. The “Plugged” version of “I Still Believe” is positively joyful, becoming a rousing number that concludes with the positive affirmation, “‘Cause if I choose to harden my heart/I’m nothing at all.” It’s certainly a message worth remembering. And by the way — it’s good to have you back, Laura.