John and Michelle Law: closing in on Ian & Sylvia territory

Go Ahead, Try It. They Dare You.

By David McGee

The Laws
JML Music

These days it seems the music news brings word of yet another husband-wife duo making its mark on the contemporary roots scene. In this publication alone the past year has seen profiles and reviews of impressive new albums by Sweet Sunny South (Bill Powers and Shelley Gray in one of their many guises), the Twangtown Paramours (Mike T. Lewis and MaryBeth Zamer), US 32 (Christy and Michael Kline), and our three-year history would add to that list the veteran Kennedys, the Honey Drewdrops and Joey + Rory. These duos happen to represent some of the most impressive musical matings by wedded partners (note the conspicuous absence, for good reason, of Steel Magnolia). But any such list would be suspect without the addition of Canada’s The Laws, John and Michelle, whose new album Try Love marks, as an accompanying press release notes, “10 years and 1 million miles together.” That’s not hype: the couple released its first album in 2000, and, in deciding to throw caution to the wind and pour all their energies into their music, forsook normal creature comforts. Until very recently, when a publishing deal with a Nashville firm changed their economic status a tad, their home was the van they traveled the continent in, which housed their clothes, their food and the tools of their trade.

The Laws, ‘Same Rain,’ the closing track on Try Love

Familiarity, however, did not breed contempt in such close quarters as the Laws once lived. Their affection for each other radiates from their bright harmonies and from a certain je ne sais quois infusing the spirit of their duets and original songs. Their voices blend beautifully--John’s reedy, gritty tenor and Michelle’s plaintive, alto drawl (you’ll hear some Emmylou lurking in there) are one of the most beautiful harmonic convergences in contemporary music--and the songs they write together, though not without their aching moments, come down on the side of love triumphing over all. Their message gets through uncluttered and tidily: Michelle plays bass, John plays acoustic guitar, and their old friend and producer J.P. Cormier is conversant in percussion, keyboards and multiple stringed instruments. And that’s it. Though spare, the Laws’ sound is rich--rich sonically by dint of smart arrangements that fill out the soundscape just so behind the couples’ striking vocals, with no solo being unwarranted or saying more than it needs to say; rich lyrically, by virtue of literate, heartfelt sentiments conveying their stories of love, of leaving, of bonding around the passion with a purpose a listener cannot ignore; and most certainly rich in the human, animated sound of their voices bringing their narratives to life. Hey, sometimes they don’t even need words: On the tellingly titled Try Love, the Laws’ sixth album, their ebullient instrumental “Beer Mountain Rag” is nearly three minutes of pure, unadulterated high spirits, a joyous bluegrass romp in which John goes on a couple of mighty tasty acoustic guitar trots, but which is otherwise driven by Cormier’s effervescent, rolling banjo and exultant mandolin statements.

Let’s be clear, though: Try Love is not some hippie-dippy, get on board the peace train, life through rose-colored glasses affair. In the yearning ballad “Walking Away,” Michelle plays the part of a woman conflicted over whether to reunite with her old flame. Over the spare backing of John’s acoustic guitar, Cormier’s spiky mandolin and robust piano, she confesses to being wracked with uncertainty as to whether the couple can rekindle the necessary heat to spark a fire--“is it worth the price/and the sacrifice/do we roll the dice/or should I keep walking away.” The music builds to a crescendo--a Laws-style crescendo, not orchestral--but there's nary a sentimental Hollywood ending in sight: after the tumult subsides, the song gently winds down with the duo harmonizing somberly over the unanswered question: “Should I keep walking away/keep walking, keep walking away…” His voice uncharacteristically ragged, John sounds every bit as weary spiritually as the lyrics suggest in the folk-flavored “In the Clouds,” until he erupts in a high-pitched howl, all these emotions flowing in the aftermath of his being suddenly abandoned by his lover, an unforeseen development that has left him feeling utterly isolated from the rest of the word, even lashing out at its indifference to his plight: “Nobody hears me I’m crying out loud/lost like a face in the crowd/just like a ghost fading into your past/the boy with his head in the clouds,” to which he adds a grace note not printed with the lyrics--“for crying out loud!”--as if to put a fine point on his emotional desolation. Moreover, on an album with an abundance of generous, selfless testimonials, Try Love closes with “Same Rain,” in which lovers wish on each other an amount of despair equal to what the other has experienced unceasingly since their adieu. The beautiful, lilting melody and easygoing country feel mask the depth of bitterness the lyrics betray, but then, maybe the point is, seeing as how both parties hurl tridents at each other’s hearts, that when there’s blame enough for two, maybe there’s hope enough for two as well. It makes sense, given what we’ve heard preceding this farewell.

The Laws, ‘Try Love,’ title track from the husband-wife duo’s new album

Which is to say the Try Love takeaway, if you will, is exactly what its title suggest: in “I Believe In You,” the album opening mission statement from the heart , set to a graceful country thump, the Laws see the persistence of love as inextricably linked to the turning of the earth and to bone-deep faith in fate playing a winning hand in personal relationships; in the sturdy, gospel-tinged title track (it does recommend “try believing in the power above”), John takes the lead with some gutsy philosophizing about love as the healing balm--“the answer to everything”--when times get tough, reminding listeners that “everybody’s got a song to share/you’re not on this road alone/don’t give up and say that you don’t care/’cause love’s the cornerstone.” Even in a bittersweet moment, exemplified by the soft heartbreaking treatise “Love Again,” when a woman taking her leave sings plaintively of reflecting on the good times she once had with her inamorata, the action coalesces around the thought of being able to find a balance that will allow her “to love again.” Messages of hope and optimism even in dire circumstances are more in keeping with the Laws’ tack in general, imparting a sense of things somehow working out as they should--they even have fun with a long line of heartaches in the easygoing western swing workout, “Who’s Keeping Score” (“I have been a player in this game called love before/but who’s keeping score/one more time I watched my dreams walk straight out the door”--pause--“but who’s keepin’ score?”). Hard to listen to The Laws without comparing them favorably to the first great Canadian husband-wife country-folk-rock duo, Ian & Sylvia. John and Michelle Law are not yet in that territory, but they’re saying something, and they’re getting close. Pay attention now.

The Laws’ Try Love is available at www.cdbaby.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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