LAURA VEIRS Carbon Glacier (Bella Union)
Laura Veirs is a Seattle-based singer/songwriter whom some have hailed as her generations Laura Nyro. The comparison is deserved, as Veirs certainly possesses some Nyro-esque love-or-loathe idiosyncrasies, not least among them her voice, which might be too stridently assured for some listeners (although it reportedly moved Eliza Carthy to tears the first time she heard it, presumably in a good way). On Carbon Glacier, her fourth album, Veirs also evokes Bjorks elfin experimentation, Suzanne Vegas near-clinical detachment and Scott Walkers rigorously intellectual later work.
Opener Ether Sings immediately maps out alien territory: chiming sleigh bells, a piercing synthesised oscillation and lyrics that turn observations inside out, fractured with a fascination for the way a phrase is assembled. Icebound Stream clatters like a campfire singalong, with the trickle of percussion in the background and an emaciated string section wheeling and circling above. The starkly brilliant Rapture surveys nature, art, music and literature, moving forensically from Monet to Kurt Cobain. Throughout the album, she and her band, Tortured Souls, employ such non-rock instrumentation as banjo-uke, glockenspiel, vibraphonette, trombone, sax, violin, cello and upright bass, mapping and adorning songs that almost breathe geography. The glorious drum machine and harpsichord (well, thats what it sounds like, although no doubt it involves neither) duet The Cloud Room would surely be a gigantic hit in any culture that prizes innovation, as would the dizzying fusion of ragtime, bluegrass and surface noise entitled Anne Bonny Rag.
Snow Camping is another moment of staggering genius: taking the disconnected sprawl of honey slide-era Neil Young to an altogether colder climate, it closes with the most chilling childrens chorus in my musical memory. Chimney Sweeping Man immediately bests it, a spare character study in shattered lyrics brought to lonely life by Veirs glassy, vaulting vocals. Salt water seeps into the closing trilogy of tracks: juxtaposed with the booklet illustration of a whale, nothing in the lyrics of Salvage A Smile contradicts the suggestion that its also the songs subject: Here I lie/Shipwreck passing underneath And you might end up a floating junk pile. Blackened Anchor is Eno ambience pulling against synthesised tides, and Riptide is gradually supported then swallowed by a luminous string arrangement.
Carbon Glacier is a shockingly diverse, magnificent album, by no means as difficult or challenging as it may sound. I first heard it less than a week ago but already it exerts a, for want of a better expression, tidal pull.
LAURA VEIRS/GINA VILLALOBOS/KARL BLAU Telfords Warehouse, Chester 7 March 2005
Telfords Warehouse is a quaint, character-laden canal-side venue that also operates as a restaurant and bar of some local repute. (Im even less qualified to review food than I am tunes, but I can recommend their generous, flavourful portions of rigatoni.) The performance area more of a room than a hall seats about a hundred, and, with its low roof beams and candlelight, has to be the most intimate venue Ive ever attended a gig in, making other similarly-themed arthouses such as Cardiffs Norwegian Church feel like Enormodomes.
Round about showtime a large gentleman with a little guitar and the mild, slightly nervous manner of introverted Championship Vinyl clerks the world over takes to the stage. Introducing himself as Karl Blau, and explaining that hes also a member of Laura Veirs band, his honest, unpretentious music must surely rock the Seattle coffeehouse circuit. What really excites this audience, a significant proportion of which seems to fall into the Uncut subscriber demographic, is the way his performance combines centuries of tradition with dazzling modernity. At his feet is some kind of sampling device, enabling Blau to approximate a one-man multitrack, playing against his own live guitar lines and layering his vocals to create a ghostly hobo choir. On a global scale it might not represent radical innovation Brian May was indulging in this kind of technology on stage with Queen back in the seventies but in this humble context its fascinating. He distributes his music in an unorthodox fashion as well, between songs plugging his album-a-month subscription scheme.
After the briefest of gaps Californian Gina Villalobos and her guitarist Ben take to the tiny stage, and it soon becomes apparent that, although I havent heard any of her recordings prior to 2003s wondrous World Without Tears, this must surely have been what the younger Lucinda Williams sounded like. Id be first to admit that its a lazy comparison Williams and Villalobos surely arent the only female throaty-voiced alt.country singers who write about smokin and drinkin, but its meant in an entirely complimentary fashion. Initially theres only a trace of grit in Ginas singing, but as her songs build to improbably thrilling crescendos her vocals become fabulously ragged, and the astonished listener is reminded just how powerful silver strings struck in anger can be. Villalobos sterling performance also begs the question as to why these generously talented people feel the need to schlep their acoustic guitars and suitcases of CDs 6,000 miles to a snowbound country and a small gathering of (admittedly rightly appreciative) people on a Monday night in Chester. Whatever the reason, we should be grateful that they do.
After another brief interval Laura Veirs and two-thirds of her band, Tortured Souls, take to the stage, there being no room for drummer Tucker Martine at this particular inn. (One wonders quite how the Telfords Warehouse stage will cope with the upcoming performance by The Jamm.) Belying the slightly frosty subject matter of many of her songs, she immediately disarms and engages by requesting that we clap along with opening song Jailhouse Fire, a feat whose technical demands have apparently eluded some other audiences on this tour. Though it goes a little avant garde in places (it is difficult, darn it; I only keep my loose grip on the rhythm by observing the actions of Blau and trombonist/keyboard player Steve Moore), and slightly elongated when Laura forgets the words to the first verse, were rated as good as the London crowd. Pursuing the pyromania theme, next up is a hypnotic rendition of Devils Hootenanny.
Other highlights of a marvellous set include an unexpectedly savage, slashing Snow Camping that, unsweetened by the childrens voices that temper the album version, descends into a maelstrom of droning feedback and distortion, all three musicians hunched on the floor conducting the howling. Riptide remains mesmerising, despite the substitution of Moores trombone for the string section of the studio take, and Salvage A Smile is predictably astonishing. For what I presume is a new song that concerns itself metaphorically with potholing, she requests the lights be turned off to enhance the effect, and the band don tiny blue head-torches to play by. The experience is only slightly diminished by the jungletastic stage backdrops fluorescent-eyed giraffe, and a mysterious thumping from upstairs during this most hushed section of the set Are they playing snooker or something?, she asks.
The best bit for me, though, follows a studiously jerky performance of Icebound Stream prompted by a request from the crowd. Now, not being of an outgoing nature, I nevertheless begin pondering what song I would yell for if I were of that sort of disposition, and when Ms Veirs asks if there are any more requests Im a little shocked to hear my own voice calling for Cannon Fodder, a chilling anti-war protest from the Troubled By The Fire album. Yes, Cannon Fodder, she agrees, pausing only to note the songs topicality before launching into a fabulous, distortion-raddled performance of it. In our brave new internet-enabled universe, I think that just about takes the interactivity biscuit.
Late into her hour-ish long set, she shares an on-stage moment, remarking how lucky she feels to have a job that involves travelling the world playing her songs to such appreciative audiences and my circle of questioning elegantly and quietly becomes unbroken. Fabulous performances and fine food, the rumoured Blue Nile tour will have to be pretty astonishing to steal my Gig of the Year award from this particular evening.
LAURA VEIRS The Triumphs & Travails Of Orphan Mae (Raven Marching Band)
Laura Veirs second album is a loosely conceptual collection woven, logically enough, around the triumphs and travails of the titular heroine. It begins potently with the thigh slapping, banjo picking pell-mell hurtle of Jailhouse Fire, as naggingly addictive as any song that features whistling will inevitably prove. The boy-gone-wrong tale of Up The River plays like 19th century Appalachian gangsta rap, and John Henry Lives, despite its insistent, locomotive urgency, is shrouded in an almost ambient wash.
Veirs singing sounds slightly more constrained here than on her later albums more Suzanne Vegas kid sister than Laura Nyros long-lost daughter. The music, too, is almost inevitably sparser not to suggest, of course, that theres anything excessive about that found on the excellent Troubled By The Fire and the astonishing Carbon Glacier lightly coloured by strings, steel and synthesis.
Unfortunately this early excellence dissipates somewhat towards the centre of the album, the likes of Black-Eyed Susan, Orphan Mae and Blue Ink wandering scared through dark, twisting thickets of sound, and Montague Road bafflingly deploying an effect that makes Laura sound like shes singing down a telephone, all filtered and distorted. In other hands the dead pet song Through December might veer (pun entirely unintended) into parody, but here it just about clings to the right side of the divide, despite lyrics such as Poor old Red shes dead and gone/Her eyes I do remember/At least I have this old guitar/To get me through December. Raven Marching Band pulls the album back into less troubled territory. A slow, stately procession of metaphor, with its found sound and uncommon time tango coda it suggests nothing less than a chamber-folk Godspeed You Black Emperor!.
If The Triumphs & Travails Of Orphan Mae doesnt display the complete mastery of the form shown on her later work, its an important document of Laura Veirs roots, modern mountain music hewn from old 78s and storytelling tradition, the seedlings of something great.
LAURA VEIRS Year Of Meteors (Nonesuch
Year Of Meteors, Laura Veirs fifth album and first for a major label, has all the accoutrements of modernity. Its her lengthiest work yet albeit still clocking in at a slender 48 minutes, it arrives in one of Nonesuchs standard issue slipcases and features an unlisted final track. Its also her first album to carry her photo on the cover, as if her new taskmasters are exploiting aspects of her persona not previously foregrounded.
Unfortunately, the wondrous kooky ambient geo-folk shes been perfecting over an often stunning series of albums (The Triumphs & Travails Of Orphan Mae, Troubled By The Fire and Carbon Glacier) sounds kind of moisturised and homogenised here. Those endearing, awkward edges of old have been smoothed away, leaving a substantial, complex work still but one that gently disappoints rather than thrills as it charms.
Take Secret Someones, for example. Its pop music from another planet, circling and cautious, yet it just slides down the subconscious where her earlier work would have lodged stubbornly. And with its wordless, chanting outro its also about two minutes longer than is absolutely necessary; thats two minutes longer than it would have been on any previous Laura Veirs album. Parisian Dream demonstrates that she hasnt misplaced her gift for spidery, off-kilter melody, but the distortion and feedback upholstery of Rialto sounds inappropriate and uncomfortable. Black Gold Blues abrasive stridency sounds a little too much like shes working through some kinda belated teenage punk obsession, and, although conceptually not dissimilar to R.E.M.s Nightswimming, Lake Swimming squashes the joy of skinnydipping flat.
Year Of Meteors is better during its sparser, quieter moments. Magnetized is more like the Laura Veirs of old; with its fluttering acoustic guitar and talk of furnaces and black tattoos it sounds of a piece with Carbon Glacier, both lyrically and musically. It resurfaces unannounced in a different form at the albums close, all parlour piano, shellac scratch and telephone fuzz. The subtly accreting arrangement of Through The Glow is a charmer, and Spelunking didnt sound at all out of place when she performed it during her early 2005 tour.
There are several genuinely great Laura Veirs albums, and, much as I hoped Year Of Meteors would prove to be another one, its (relatively) airbrushed slickness undermines my appreciation of it, unfortunately. Its the sound of the artist luxuriantly treading water.
LAURA VEIRS / CATALDO / THE OLD BELIEVERS Manchester Academy 3 19 January 2010
The Old Believers are a Portland, Oregon ensemble of Lambchop-ian expanse if you believe their MySpace page, but tonight only one of their 13 members is in attendance (Nelson, if I heard correctly), playing gloomy but not unattractive songs on electric guitar.
I can get more enthusiastic about Cataldo, or at least the one member of the band, Eric Anderson, who made the trip. He at least establishes some considerable rapport with a sympathetic audience, and offers a little more variety and wit with his songwriting.
When Laura and her band take to the stage the expediency of multiple support acts suddenly becomes clear, as Nelson and Eric are on duty alongside a lady violinist. They all multi-task furiously, bless them, even disassembling the drum kit mid-set so some of its component parts can be moved within striking distance of the keyboard. Laura and band play great swathes of her new album, "July Flame", which is something of a double-edger as it won't be released in this country until the Monday after this Tuesday gig, but the audience cope admirably with the inevitable unfamiliarity. It certainly seems like the product of a different Laura Veirs: previously her songs seem to have concentrated on icebound, aquatic imagery, but, from the album's title to its sound, her music now has the feel of a happy, drowsy summer day, all pastel shades where once would've been black, white, blue, green and grey. At one point she even sings - over a bout of organised audience-participation handclapping - what she assures us is a traditional folk song about the benefits of chicken ownership, which is all rather a long way from "Carbon Glacier". It has to be said that her tiny band are magnificent at conjuring up the ornate, luxuriant textures these songs need to succeed. It helps that this is one of the best sounding gigs I've been to in the Academy 3, with every word and instrument perfectly audible.
Inevitably, though, it's the old familiars that make the evening, and if anything there could've been more of them. "Ether Sings" might be the night's highlight for me, but nothing is less than lovely. She plays "Magnetized" by request, and elaborate audience vocal assistance is arranged for "To The Country".
If, for me, tonight doesn't quite escape the long shadow of her 2005 show at Telfords Warehouse in Chester it's solely because of my undying affection for the album she was touring at the time, the magnificent "Carbon Glacier". For any less myopic fans, tonight would surely represent a triumph. Oh, and she's just starting a two month world tour despite being six months pregnant; gotta admire that.
LAURA VEIRS July Flame (Bella Union)
After two major label albums that, even if they weren’t, strained with the sound of an eccentric talent being squeezed through the cookie cutters of commerce and marketing, Laura Veirs has returned with an indie record that stands as her finest work since the brilliant “Carbon Glacier”.
If her music has previously been characterised by a wintery – although emphatically not chilly – feel, with all those songs about sea, snow and glaciers, “July Flame” is, as its title suggests, an album of an entirely different season. Counting backwards, given that she was expecting a child in April this year, it has to be wondered whether there’s something, um, conceptual to that title. Certainly, the album unfolds like a chronicle of old love, new love and, at its gorgeous conclusion, maybe new life.
Old love is confronted, addressed and dismissed in opening track “I Can See Your Tracks”, making a slight return on the jogging, insistent “Wide-Eyed, Legless”. With its chorus of “No more looking back/Faded epitaphs” it sounds like a catalogue of memories being rifled through for a final time before being put away forever. The title track is rapt and rapturous, aglow with its “Can I call you mine?” hookline. The steel guitar and country rock slope of “Sun Is King” could almost be described as verdant Americana, and “Where Are You Driving?”’s banjo and wheezing pump organ are at least in the neighbourhood of some kind of back porch mountain music. The paradoxically titled “Life Is Good Blues” is no kind of blues with which I’m familiar, instead modelling a glorious fluttering vocal arrangement, and “Summer Is The Champion” is all reckless brassy exuberance. “When You Give Your Heart” is nearly a straightforward love song, albeit one whose lyrics include words such as pollinators, emeraldine and swales. “Sleeper In The Valley” adapts its quietly forceful anti-war message from a Rimbaud poem, while “Carol Kaye” celebrates the titular Wrecking Crew bassist (despite not having any bass on it). Finally comes what might be the album’s peak: “Make Something Good” is a piano waltz towards a future flushed with the blush of something more than mere romance, subtle, intricate and gorgeous.
Full of wandering, wondering melodies and unorthodox arrangements, “July Flame” is not a product of commercial compromise. A song like “Little Deschutes” almost, almost walks the kind of wracked, desolate psychogeography as Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers” , with its uncertain tune, hesitant pauses, strings and drones. Like that album, “July Flame” reveals its secrets slowly. I’ve had it on heavy rotation for six months and I’m still discovering new allusions and connections within it. Album of the year so far for me, and a record that I strongly suspect will continue to mature with time.
“180 gram audiophile vinyl”, trumpets the cover sticker, a bold claim that the click-infested, slightly grainy sounding record inside falls some way short of. Encouragingly, though, as a product of the Czech GZ Vinyl plant, it’s a definite improvement on other albums I own that were pressed there. Besides, there’s a free MP3 download included, so that’s all right then. Hmmm.
LAURA VEIRS / LED TO SEA / KARL BLAU The Ruby Lounge, Manchester 13 August 2010
I first saw Karl Blau opening for Laura Veirs in 2005, and the overwhelming impression he leaves second time around is that he seems to have slimmed down a bit. Playing an electric guitar borrowed from the headliner, tonight his songs are strongly reminiscent of Smog (i.e. the Bill Callahan kind). He also has the novel idea of selling a poster (with a silk-screened slug design on it, no less) bundled with a download code for his latest album. Slightly embarrassingly, when he offers to play requests the only one forthcoming is for “That’s How I Got To Memphis”, a Tom T Hall song he’s been known to cover. Politely declining, he instead plays something he’s cleverly written specifically to defuse such a situation, titled “Memphis”.
I first saw Led To Sea, a.k.a. viola player Alex Guy, when she backed Lara Veirs during her previous Manchester show in January. Solo, she conjures up strange, seasick orchestras from one viola and a box of sampling tricks at her feet. And she’s written a song about crashing her bike into a BMW. Sweet.
Laura Veirs is, predictably, as glorious as ever. What impresses particularly is the range of both her songwriting and the sounds that her band The Hall Of Flames (comprising both support acts and her producer/partner/father of her child Tucker Martine) squeeze out of the limited resources to hand. They move from the back porch country-rock of “Sun Is King” through “Ether Sings”’ shimmering, coruscating beauty and almost straight rock in the space of the first three songs. The setlist mostly draws on her getting-better-with-every-play new album “July Flame”, of which the title track and “Wide-Eyed, Legless” are, if pressed, the standouts. She reveals as a postscript to “Carol Kaye” (“Maybe I can meet her/Maybe shake her hand someday”) that earlier this year she did indeed meet and shake the hand of the titular Wrecking Crew bassist.
I barely recognise “Song My Friends Taught Me”, played solo by Laura on an acoustic guitar, but elsewhere the economy of arrangement works entirely in the songs’ favour. Tucker Martine’s drumming is especially noteworthy, sometimes playing one-handed whilst doubling on shaker, and sending dynamite cracks through “Silo Song”. And they play a rare cover, the Tom T. Hall song “That’s How I Got To Memphis”, with Karl Blau on vocals. Ha ha.
If there are any demerits, they’re the usual selfish ones I can level at Laura Veirs gigs: at 75 minutes her she could have played a far longer set without being in any danger of outstaying the audience’s warm welcome, and at just one song apiece she didn’t play nearly enough from her classic early albums “The Trials & Travails Of Orphan Mae”, “Troubled By The Fire” and “Carbon Glacier”. But, in fairness, could she ever?
Oh, and The Ruby Lounge is a far better venue for this kind of semi-acoustic intimacy than the Springsteen-in-a-shoebox aesthetic of the Jesse Malin gig I saw here the month before.
LAURA VEIRS / ALESSI'S ARK Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays 1 February 2012
Alessi's Ark is a bit of a puzzler. It's not the fact that she's one lady with an acoustic guitar - that's pretty much de rigueur for support slots these days - more that she's such a guileless performer. She apologises for the occasional mid-song flub, and concludes a rambling anecdote involving her watch, some relatives and a cat by correctly noting that it's longer than some of her songs. The way she sings, stretching out syllables into strange new shapes, gets me thinking that English isn't her first language; when she describes Rhyl as "somewhere near here" I begin to suspect that she's landed here from a different planet, one liberally stocked with flowery dresses perhaps. (Comically wide of the mark, I later learn she's from Hammersmith.) Musically she's the tiniest bit "Pink Moon"-era Nick Drake, more for the spindly fragility of her melodies than any psychological drama they may carry, with a Syd Barrett's fascination for language ladled over them. Pleasant if unsubstantial for much of her set, it all coalesces into a very fine final song that has a touch of the murder ballad about it.
One of many charming and astonishing aspects of a Laura Veirs performance is how alive with music it is, exemplified by the way that when Phil, who's travelled 900 miles to be here tonight, demands to hear "Shadow Blues" and "Through December" during the encore, she scratches arrangements together, prompting the audience to help her with forgotten lyrics partway through. This is a band that battles tour bus tedium by learning Purcell rounds, performs a mid-set demonstration of the ubiquity of the I-IV-V chord progression in popular song and supplements their itinerary by playing free all-ages matinee shows for audiences attracted by Laura's recent album of folk songs for children.
That album, "Tumble Bee", barely features tonight, contributing only "All The Pretty Little Horses" and "Little Lap Dog Lullaby", during which Laura requests vocal and hand-clapping audience participation. The lack leaves space for many songs from 2010’s increasingly wondrous “July Flame”, including “Sun Is King”, “Wide-Eyed, Legless”, “Carole Kaye” (ahead of which I have to stifle a yelp when Laura claims the legendary eponymous session bassist played on Beatles recordings) and delicious encore closer “I Can See Your Tracks”, during which a bubble-making machine rescued from the matinee shows covers the stage with soapy water shapes. The evening’s greatest take home surprise is how, as a measure of the way the album has matured, the dappled, honeyed glow of the “July Flame” songs convincingly outplaces those she plays from my old favourite album of hers, “Carbon Glacier”, the former leaving the likes of “Ether Sings”, “Lonely Angel Dust” and “Riptide” seeming pretentious and stilted in comparison…which is not how I remember them.
She also plays two promising new songs, vintage material like “Jailhouse Fire” (tonight revealed to be about the protest activities of her violinist/violist/keyboardist Alex Guy, who also records and tours under the name Led To Sea) and an immediately recognisable cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend”. It does seem odd that she’s playing in the plushest environs I’ve yet seen her in – The Lowry’s Quays Theatre is comfy and intimate, with fabulous sound – with such a small band, just herself, Alex and her former guitar teacher Tim Young. Still, it’s as much as her songs need: they’d sound strong in any setting, and they’re marvellous here. All that clouds another special Laura Veirs show is that, at barely 80 minutes, there isn’t enough of it. Then again, though, could there ever be?