Album Review: Stu Larsen – Vagabond
Stu Larsen is one of the best singer songwriters making music today. He’s got an understated swagger that makes listeners feel comfortable and comforted. In my upbringing the phrase “easy listening” came across as an insult, but if we can repackage that term as a compliment it holds up for Larsen’s music. It’s easy, sometimes pop and sometimes a bit more raw, but always enjoyable.
Larsen’s opener “San Francisco” is a nice pop opener to the album. It’s about travelling and eventually returning. But it’s about the joy that is wandering. “I won’t know where I’m going til I get there; you know I wish you felt the same.” It’s the song that gives the album’s title and it’s easy to see why it all starts here. He is a man on an adventure. He wants his listeners to join him.
“King Street” is also a great melodic song. It’s a confident narrative about perception and reality. It’s about observation of materialism. (“People runnin’ round buyin’ shit they don’t need…”) It’s really a great countercultural piece. It’s about homelessness, poverty, and the juxtaposition of wealth versus quality of life. I really wish more people saw the world this way.
Interestingly it’s followed by Larsen’s biggest commercial success, a massively-popular single called “Thirteen Sad Farewells.” With an upbeat Bohemian feel and some really sublime backing strings, it’s a song from another era; it’s a song from every era. Seriously it sounds like something that could have come out in the 60s, but still has a fresh, crisp originality to it. And for a breakup song, it’s just about as catchy as they come.
“Pocket Full of Coins” is sweet and romantic. It’s got one of those cool little shaker things in the background that says “this is upbeat and fun, but we still want it to be quiet.” The harmonies and piano that come in for the “I’m movin’ on” refrain so sweetly and softly introduce the notion that the song is about leaving. The “pocket full of coins” are ostensibly to help afford the escape plan. “When you wake up in the mornin’… darlin’ I’ll be gone.” It’s got a little bit of a blues flavor to it, while being overall a beautiful chill folk rock tune. It makes me want a hug. (And not to be too much of a spoiler, but the bridge is totally late-Beatles-esque – high praise deservedly so.)
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a perfect song title fit with an artist as Larsen’s “Some Kind of Gypsy.” It continues the meandering life of the opening track with an added romantic edge. “All I need is your love,” is the punctuating lyric. “Now they’re saying that I’m some kind of gypsy… that I’ve been getting tipsy with the people that I meet.” Of course, if you didn’t guess already, there are handclaps and gang vocals. It’s the kind of jam you picture singing on the beach right before the sun makes it all the way down… when the cool air off the water makes it just cool enough to wish you brought your long sleeves, but the warmth of friends makes you glad you didn’t. “I need your love… won’t you give it to me?”
“Darling If You’re Down” highlights percussion and a banjo. Of course, a banjo. But all told the sound is much more clearly folk. It’s the kind of track that fans of Inside Llewyn Davis would really enjoy. It juxtaposes beautifully with “Maybe I Am,” potentially the best song on the album. Stylistically it’s stripped down with just an acoustic guitar and piano. “She’ll be gone before we even kiss,” shows a heartache that can only emerge from an authentic place. As the strings fill in the background of the track, listeners receive the blessing of those good goosebumps; you know the kind. So good.
“Skin and Bone” has a bit of an attitude to it. The beginning is much like the rest of the album, but the chorus is at the next level. The harmonies are so tight and well done; they reflect a familiar refrain from the rest of the album about “runnin’ away.” The last track “I will wait no more” is a gospel tune and might be my absolute favorite on an album that I really love. “I’ve been waiting for this morning and I will wait no more.” It might be the happiest song about death you’ve ever heard. It’s also gloriously beautiful with harmonies and overall structure. It’s got that sassy harmonica to it, too. It’s the perfect way to end the album.
It’s probably evident by now I love this album. I held back from writing the review because I just kept listening to it over and over. It’s that special next-level production and performance quality that deserves to be noticed. Please purchase and support this fabulously talented man. Be sure to share the review and the music with your friends who like good chill folk and folk rock, which – let’s face it – should be everyone you know.