Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. When life hands you a lot of lemons, you pucker up and open a lemonade stand. But what are you supposed to do when, after all your hard work, life takes your lemons away? You start from scratch.

In the fall of 2006, Bre Loughlin and producer Brian Valentino were putting the finishing touches on Modern American Photo Album, a solo acoustic record slated for a September local release and a November national release. The record was to be Loughlin's first effort without a full band, and was to feature only Loughlin's vocals, acoustic guitar, and some percussion. Everything seemed in perfect order, pre-release hype was just beginning to swell up, and the fruits of a long and arduous process were just beginning to ripen. Then came the rain. Valentino's basement studio flooded, and every trace of their hard work was destroyed. Spirits dampened, Loughlin put her guitar in its case and decided to abandon ship. "When I lost the album, I felt like God was trying to tell me something really important here, and it was time to listen," says Loughlin of the experience. "I was done."

But this itsy bitsy spider had some climbing left in her yet. By the beginning of spring 2007, Loughlin and Valentino were back in the studio with a clean slate and a new vision. Instead of reproducing the original record, they elected to expand it, inviting an ensemble of talented musicians to add depth and color to Loughlin's songs. The final mixes were finished by the first week of September 2007, nearly coinciding with the anniversary of the original's loss. Finally, the Sisyphean journey of Modern American Photo Album was complete.

The new version of the record keeps true to the original acoustic concept, with the accompanying instrumentation natural and unplugged. Various string, horn, and percussion instruments intertwine with the music, complimenting Loughlin's distinct vocal rhythms and melodies with an organic grace. It begins with "Joy Kill," a song that debuted as part of the live repertoire of Daylight Basement, Loughlin's former band. A simple acoustic riff is all that follows Loughlin's vocals through the first verse, then the song is swept up by layers of swirling guitar strings. Stripped of its original electronic elements, the feeling of isolation and alienation that the song revolves around shines through with brutal honesty.

Some songs fully incorporate the added instrumentation, to great effect. "Brand New Year" utilizes a cornet, a saxophone, and a marimba (to name a few), in its hopeful celebration. A guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument, weaves beautifully through the heartbroken "Whale Song." Other songs use instrumentation sparingly. "Hospital" expresses with touching poignancy Loughlin's experiences as a nurse, watching death up close and being helpless to prevent it. Subtle cello melodies and percussion rhythms swell up at emotional peaks, lifting the song with their presence and returning the song to barren intimacy with their absence. "Welcome to Hell" and "Porcupine" have no added accompaniment, giving a small taste of the record's original acoustic intent. "Welcome to Hell" was originally released on Fast Colliding by KUMA — the first band Loughlin fronted. It returns with a new sense of vulnerability, and some lines seem to express the loss of the first Modern American Photo Album so fittingly that, if I didn't know any better, I might have assumed they were written for that reason. "Porcupine," a heartfelt ballad about the need for comfort in a relationship, ends the record with a single acoustic note. After all that it took to create this record, it is appropriate that it should be bookended by Loughlin's solitary guitar and vocals.

Modern American Photo Album plays a lot like a photo album. A sad and lonely song is followed by a happy and quirky song, then a song of betrayal and indignation, and so on, yet no track seems the slightest bit out of place. "I was thinking that the songs were like photos — little snapshots of time in my life," explains Loughlin. "What it was like to be a nurse, what it was like to walk away from love for good reasons, what it's like to feel like such a goof that my guitar is about all I can relate to." It really does feel something like a photo album where you turn the page to see a picture of you as a kid laughing under a sprinkler and you smile, then you turn the page to see a picture of a grandmother who has passed away and you feel melancholy, then you turn the page to see a picture of a lover and remember all of the good and bad and in-between times, then you turn the page…. There is a lot of anguish, hope, melancholy, joy, and nostalgia in this record, but none of those emotions constitute the theme of Loughlin's music. There is a much stronger theme that underlies everything, and it is Bre Loughlin's most powerful element: love — in all of its cozy and crazy forms.

It took a lot of time and soul-searching effort for Bre Loughlin to reach this level of emotional sincerity and artistic individuality, but now that she's here, what's next? I'll let her answer that herself: "I love backing people up. Locking in some great harmonies and playing some lines that just fit is an amazing feeling. I see that as being my next step." What, exactly, does that mean? I guess we'll just have to find out as she does.