Seven Looks at Laura Veirs
photo by David Belisle
Putting Her CDs on (Somewhat) Random Play
By Kurt Wildermuth
Reader, I'd like to tell you about Laura Veirs, a singer/songwriter from Seattle whose music deserves more attention. Here, with some context woven in, is what you might hear if you download and listen to a bunch of Laura Veirs tracks.
This is track 3 on Veirs's Carbon Glacier (2004). That CD was her first one on Nonesuch Records, which specializes in contemporary "classical" music but also puts out self-consciously high-art pop/rock. Carbon Glacier, with its nature motifs and faux-woodcut booklet art, looks like a song cycle and flows like a concept album. The concept might be as loose as conveying the feel of the Pacific Northwest. You might find it hard to fully appreciate any of the individual songs taken out of the sequence. The complete collection of effects on this CD--the poetic lyrics, the waywardly childlike but heartfelt vocals, the spacey and earthy textures--could win you over to Veirs's music. Or you could be alienated by any one effect, any one track, by itself. For example, "Rapture" begins with a simple figure--picked on an acoustic guitar and plunked on a piano--that, if you're so inclined, might strike you as the universal shorthand for "sensitive," the kind of gentle folk music played in the clichéd cafes, tip-jar clubs, and National Public Radio studios of your nightmares. The song honors artistic rapture, and the lyrics' references to Monet, Basho, Kurt Cobain, and Virginia Woolf might--again, if you're this kind of person--come across as preciousness best left in undergraduate musings. As the rest of the ultimately downbeat and subtly sinister Carbon Glacier makes clear, more is happening here than you might realize at first. "With photographs," Veirs sings, and you could be hooked. What's this about? The (at least) double-tracking on her vocal, the way her voice sounds crystalline and at the same time accompanies itself, adds mystery to what might otherwise be too plain-spoken:and magnetic tapeThere is no chorus. When the melody rises where the chorus might have been, a descending percussion figure counters it. The layers in the recording indicate a doubleness and indicate depth. That depth signals change and, ultimately, death. Death becomes rapture's companion. But you have to listen for it.
pretty animals in cages
pretty animals in vases
"When You Give Your Heart"
This "song of love / gathered from stuff above" is a highlight of July Flame (2010), which Veirs self-released on Raven Marching Band Records after parting from Nonesuch. The track opens with an intricate, delicate, lyrical, finger-picked guitar figure. The mood is of a sunny Saturday afternoon in a comfortable place. Veirs declaims the opening line, "since you lay my burdens," repeating it twice. First you picture her sitting in a wooden chair on a porch, working out her guitar part. Then she opens her mouth into a cartoon ‘O' and the words fly out. She's a little girl at a talent show.since you lay my burdens downShe sets up tension between the lightness of the music and the bluesy heaviness of these lines. The next verse continues in the same musical vein, but here, with the troubles gone, "the pollinators spread their wings / and take into the air." By the end of the verse, the acoustic guitar has become less prominent in the mix, and during the chorus it is joined by a hard-to-parse combination of viola, autoharp, mandolin, and electric guitar. There are no drums, just as there are no drums on most of July Flame. The whole CD sounds unglossy and handmade. It's music made to convey unusually articulate feeling.
all the troubles I been
dragging down this trail
seep into the thirsty ground
and my stampeding buffaloAfter a pause, the unglossy, handmade-sounding little string section plays an airy, vaguely Asian melody. This detour resembles the twists John Lennon liked to give his vocal lines in the psychedelic mid-'60s, and it's not the kind of thing you expect to rise from this song's guitar bed. The music delivers the kind of surprising invention presented in the lyrics:
stops in her tracks and watches the snow
falling through the old oak tree
when you give your heart to me
this is a song for youDo you know Bob Dylan's "New Morning" (1970)? It sounds like pure joy, like someone delighting in a life shared with someone else: "On this new morning / new morning / with you." Veirs is similarly pleased, but she sounds a bit shyer, like a young woman passing a love note rather than a cultural icon luxuriating in being a husband and father. The chorus repeats once more, the vaguely Asian melody repeats, and a quick fade says: Grasp a good thing while you can.
a spring comes bubbling through
the place whenever you're around.
"Raven Marching Band"
This track is the climax of Veirs's alt-country CD, The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae (2001). Veirs self-released this disc on Raven Marching Band after putting out a self-titled, solo-acoustic recording (1999) that's no longer available. If any one track can sum up what's so appealing about Veirs, this might be the one. It opens with a simple bass line, accented with a hint of guitar. The rhythm isn't funky, but it's as funky as Veirs gets. Her sexy-librarian look and outlook don't lend themselves to funky; they tend more toward ear candy. Here, you're drawn in and made to wonder where the rhythm, the suggestion of a march, is leading. Then Veirs delivers what might be her signature line: "The sky's a raven marching band." It's writerly but not stilted or showoffy. It creates a picture but gives you some imaginative work to do. What would it mean for the sky to be a raven marching band? "Black blizzard blowing across the land." Now you have the image: a force of nature in motion, working its forbidding way across the horizon. But again Veirs quietly creates tension between the sense and the sound. She doesn't seem the least perturbed by this potentially cataclysmic spectacle. It turns out she's not alone: "Come, darling, take my hand / I'm whisky poured into the sand." What does that mean? Has something precious and intoxicating been lost? Has it gone back into its ultimate source, the earth? A sultry image, it conjures warmth and wetness. The background remains eerily beautiful and possibly apocalyptic: "Star blossoms bloom the night / Falling out burning fire bright." A pretty solo by some hard-to-determine string instrument or keyboard doesn't express but rather explores like a probe in clear sky above the storm. When Veirs returns, the scenery has provided a narrative possibility: "Silver tracks lie long and straight / A perfect means for my escape." They're on the run, it seems, but still: "Come, darling, take my hand / I'm whisky poured into the sand." The bass guitar's near-march has continued, but at this point the music shifts unexpectedly into a gathering of momentum and then the sound of departure. Drums kick in, followed by "electric mayhem," as the instrumental credits put it (only two tracks on the CD have drums. This is the only track with electric mayhem). Somewhere in the mix are "processed trains" courtesy of Veirs's longtime producer and sonic collaborator, Tucker Martine. Is this "a song of love / gathered from stuff above"? Is it love at the end of the world? It's as though the nature that is so benignly powerful in "When You Give Your Heart" has become a force to be feared, beautiful yet terrifying.
This small masterpiece, the title track of Veirs's 2007 CD (Nonesuch), was partly inspired by A. S. Byatt's novel Possession. The CD booklet provides this credit; the song itself isn't overtly literary or narrative. Wildly imaginative pop, it happens to include lines such as "Chinese dragons incandescent" and "mirror to the serpentine stars." Veirs always finds the musicality in her vocabulary or perhaps isn't afraid to work her vocabulary into her musicality. Saltbreakers is a full-band recording (not of all her recordings are), and this song, uncharacteristically for Veirs, opens with a quick drum shuffle. The band picks it up and adds to it a melody of brightly lit primary colors. This friendly greeting is the kind of hook that the classic pop singles used to deliver. And when Veirs reaches the chorus, her repetitions of the word "saltbreakers" alternate with weird incantations delivered by male backup singers:(ringing all the underwaterAll of this might add up to a song of love. The love could be directed at another person, or it could be directed at a god. The "you" addressed by the singer is some force, with a face, that sent wishes to the stars. The singer is living, acting, singing in opposition to it: "You will not burn me up / I'm a fallen leaf who keeps her green." Her saltbreakers are her secret weapons and sacred possessions.
underwater, underwater bells)
(look inside a space
look inside a space and you can tell)
(what you need to sow
what you need to know by any means)
On any roughly similar singer/songwriter's CD, this little love song would be fine. On Laura Veirs's otherwise fascinating Troubled by the Fire (Raven Marching Band, 2003), it takes up space as track 2. The music copies Neil Young's sleepiest folk-country, a style Veirs occasionally falls back on. The singer is roaming, riding the rails, and coming home to the "bedroom eyes" of the one he or maybe she has left back home. The chorus consists ofBedroom eyesThe movement here may resemble the journey at the end of "Raven Marching Band," but hearing this song after that one is like going from a box of 64 crayons to a box of 1.
This funny and creepy narrative, also from Troubled by the Fire, more than compensates for "Bedroom Eyes." Here, again, the singer is a rambler. Wanting to spend the night in a house he or she happens upon, the singing rambler finds a devil's hootenanny going on inside.Then the music that I heardThe singer joins the devils, then spends the night inside the house as it burns to cinders.
Was bizarre, it was absurd
Like no banjo, fiddle, bass I'd ever seen
And I dreamt of summersThere's no chorus. The music starts out as a ramshackle rendering of Dylan circa 1966–67, but by the end it has transformed into Veirs's version of a New Orleans funeral march.
Down by the sea
With the devil's banjo playing on my knee
Is this track, from Year of Meteors (Nonesuch, 2005), Veirs's best-known song? At a recent show in Manhattan, people called for this one, and when she ended the show without playing it, they acted as though Lynyrd Skynyrd had neglected to play "Free Bird." It may be her most "produced" track, in that the full-band sound has thumping drums, stinging guitars, and sizzling synthesizer straight out of the 1970's. The lyrics deliver a Whitmanesque ode to love in which the lover's singing makesgalaxies pour down my cheeksWhen the lover and the singer dance, the singer is "10,000 leagues beneath the sea / 10,000 leagues!" When they kiss, "gravity is dead you see / no gravity!" Veirs doesn't scream the emphases, but the written lyrics' exclamation marks don't come as a surprise. In Veirs's universe, passion is a natural wonder like stars, water, the forces that move animals and objects. She sings these things and celebrates them.
galaxies they flood the street
See more at L.Veirs's homepage
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