I saw Lac La Belle in 2009 at the fabulous Dally in the Alley in Detroit, just a little while after the trio adopted that name. Before then, they were Jennie and the Sure Shots; that made you think they played cowgirl music, which for the most part they don’t. Lac La Belle isn’t an ideal name, either; the group has no connection to the Upper Peninsula lake, and the name doesn’t quite match their website’s proclamation of themselves as “an intriguing acoustic trio that juxtaposes the early decades of recorded rural American music with decaying Rustbelt aesthetic.” But that didn’t stop a good crowd from finding its way to Lac La Belle’s set, threading its way among stages devoted to techno and hip-hop and punk, drawn by Lac La Belle’s rough-sounding but exact harmonies and instrumental work.
Lac La Belle may still be forming their identity, but they’re onto some highly original ideas. The songs on their eponymous CD are of several types, none of them closely connected to the decaying Rust Belt. The trio does indeed draw on old-time country music, with modal scales and a traded-off instrumentarium of guitar, mandolin, banjo, double bass, and an accordion—the last used, to quite ethereal effect, on the Eddy Arnold standard “Cattle Call.” They do other old-time standards, including an instrumental “Grandfather’s Clock” that distills their straightforward textures and rhythms, and the folk ballad “Prodigal Son.” And there’s one Lac La Belle song, “The Dog,” that’s strong enough stuff to merit a warning: in her distinctive soprano, with a bit of lilt and a bit of throat, lead vocalist Jennie Knaggs tells of shooting an injured dog to put its suffering to an end, and having her own thoughts morph into those of suicide.
But the largest group of songs is also the most distinctive. They seem to come from Knaggs’ pen, although none of Lac La Belle’s songs carries a songwriter credit. They’re statements of identity, in life or in love, and lyrically they’re not too far off the independent female voices like Kasey Chambers and Neko Case who have populated alternative country venues. But the old-time accompaniment adds an edge that rock guitars don’t furnish, interacting with the lyrics in completely new ways. When Knaggs sings “I build myself up from the way I run,” or “we survive the different ways of dying,” she fuses the hard existential gloom of Dock Boggs with contemporary emotional content. Knaggs, who is classically trained and also performs in rock and Afrobeat bands, has the vocal chops to carry this off: she’s not affecting an old-time sound but carrying a musical resource forward.
Lac La Belle opens on December 3 at the Ark for Orpheum Bell, another extraordinarily original band rooted in old American music. Danny Kline of the sparse Ann Arbor Americana band Delta 88 is also on the bill. You couldn’t ask for a better one-night demonstration of the fresh wonders of southeast Michigan’s alternative country scene.