The debut recording from Alicia Bay Laurel comes after a 30-year apprenticeship in everything from folk to jazz, Brazilian, and Hawaiian music (in addition to a career as an acclaimed author and illustrator), and it is a beautiful and rejuvenating catharsis of a record. It is a thankful piece of work, refreshing and pure, full of sweet naiveté but also a kind of undiluted wisdom and a strong sense of self-awareness, best exemplified by one song, "Oh Sweet Self." The songs were written in Laurel's commune days, during which she was writing the original version of her bestseller Living on the Earth, chiefly between 1968 and 1975. All but one of the songs, though, were recorded over a two-month period at the beginning of 2000 by Laurel with just her guitar playing as accompaniment. As simple as the pleasures of the music are, however, this is not simple music. This is a quintessentially folk album, but not a standard one. It betrays strong elements of jazz and even hints of gospel, and Laurel displays some fabulously fingerpicked acoustic blues passages throughout, especially on songs like "Chard & Chives," the jazzy autobiography-in-song "Nineteen Sixty-Six," and the instrumental "Sky Blues." In addition, the influence of Indian culture shows up not only in the classical "Vai Raga" but also in the folk-raga hybrid instrumental of "Waterwheel" and some of the leitmotifs of "Mandala." Many of the songs utilize tricky and unconventional open and modal tunings, all expertly managed by Laurel.
The songs stand well on their own, but work even better as complements to and invocations of Living on the Earth. Lyrically, there is a concerted slant toward the communal/hippie themes that were so endemic to the period during which all the songs were written: love, nature, freedom, understanding, spirituality, compassion, voluntary simplicity. "Chard & Chives," for instance, is an innocent ode to gardening that soon extends to the larger ideals of living in and with nature, and then to the importance of growing into one's life. The wonderful "Hang Out & Breathe" offers gentle rural charms and serves as a sort of folk meditation on Ram Dass' tenet, "Be here now." And the a cappella "Rain" is a straightforward celebration of the cleansing properties of the title subject. But these ideals also happen to be universal themes, many of them still, unfortunately, lacking in the world, rendering the songs just as relevant as the day on which they were composed. The album appropriately closes with the 40-voice choir version of "In the Morning" recorded live in the 1970s by the Occidental Community Choir from choral arrangements made by friend, mentor, and avant-garde composer Ramon Sender. The solo folk version that opens the album is a gorgeous awakening to our common humanity, and a lovely way to bring the music to commencement. But when the 40 voices join in the end, the song turns into a transcendent prayer. It seems to break from its strictures, wander out into the early light of day, and mingle with the living earth where it can breath, before rising up toward the heavens, a gift. Many of the songs on Music From Living on the Earth, in fact, seem like small, tranquil gifts. [The album is available from the artist's website, www.aliciabaylaurel.com, or by writing directly to her at P.O. Box 2133, Kihei, HI 96753.]