Never one to turn down a freebie, I took up the chance of two tickets to see Laura Veirs play the now annual Americana weekend at the Sage, Gateshead in July. I'd had several opportunities to see her play in the north east before this but I wasn't convinced by what I'd heard. Much better to make my mind up for free...
Although she has an impressive output of albums, this show focused mainly on her most recent release "Saltbreakers" that was released in spring 2007 on the Nonsuch label - musos will know that the label is also home to the Decemberists, a band she has much in common with.
From her solo performance I found enough to like to acquire the album and I have to say it is one that gets several plays a week. On record, Laura is accompanied by her band, also called the "Saltbreakers", formerly the "Tortured Souls", and the new name seems much more in keeping for this album.
"Saltbreakers" is an album that is very much influenced by the sea, a theme that runs through many of the tracks. In fact her most recent albums have all hung together loosely on single concepts -"Year of Meteors" used the theme of the stars and the heavens while "Carbon Glacier" had a somewhat unlikely earthy almost geological theme running through it . At the show, Laura explained that she used the name "Saltbreakers" for two reasons - firstly to tie in the with sea motif and second to symbolize tears as she said the album marked a difficult period for her personally.
The album is produced by Tucker Martine who also produces the Decemberists who regularly share the bill with Veirs at Seattle shows and who also are influenced heavily by the sea in their song writing.
Looking at Laura Veirs with her wide eyes, her serious expression and her heavy framed spectacles, she promises poetic daydreams set to music, heartfelt emotion and earnestness; she doesn't disappoint. Her lyrics are the stuff of student notebooks, influenced by reading poetry and novels and days spent dreaming in the countryside. Veirs showers her songs with fairy-tale like metaphors, sometimes its like being showered with sparkling dust. The opening line of "Ocean Night Song" sums it up, "A handful of dream dust for my pirate..."
Laura Veirs also sings just as you would expect her to. Admittedly her range is not good and the tone often comes across as flat but her slightly nerdy and kookie voice is perfect for the songs.
Taken alone either the lyrics or Veirs voice would probably put me off. I'm not really one for twee juvenilia (think Joanna Newsom) or the college geek sound of, say, Wheatus, but what makes Laura Veirs more than bearable is the music. Veirs takes strings, choirs, brass or simply uses her own voice for percussion and makes her songs come alive
Veirs is a talented musician bursting with ideas for imbuing her songs with a magical quality. Foremost on this album are songs like the title track "Saltbreakers" "Don't Lose Yourself" and "Wandering Kind", poppy numbers with lively jangling guitars. Sadly "Phantom Mountain" fails to deliver what was clearly intended to be a rockier number though a different performer might have shown it to be a good song overall.
The critical highlight of the album is "To the Country", a song that was recorded at Johnny and June Cash's cabin near Nashville. On this song she's accompanied by the Cedar Hill Choir and the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, a musician who has taken Veirs under his wing somewhat as they both record for Nonsuch. The song does have a vague African vibe but overall it shows that Veirs talents definitely lie in the folky, Americana direction.
Personally, though, my favourite track is "Nightingale"; it's a song that really highlights Veirs quirky vocal sound and the thing I like best is that you just can't tell where its going - almost a kind of musical blank verse. The sound is stripped right down with a gentle stop-start rhythm creating a very atmospheric song that I could listen to over again. Other reviewers have loathed this song and I can see why; In fact I agree with their appraisals, but I still really like it.
Those who already know Ms Veirs work will not find anything new here; however she seems to have found her niche and sees no reason to change. If I can detect any change it must surely come from her mover from Colorado to the Pacific north west where she Is now based in Seattle like fellow Americana darlings Richmond Fontaine.
So who would enjoy this album? Well, it's hard to pigeon hole Laura Veirs. There's certainly a folky feeling to her music and the lyrical content is very much leaning towards the natural world. On "Saltbreakers" she demonstrates that she focuses on the lyrics writing the music that suits her words rather than sticking entirely to one musical genre. She is able to straddle the genres writing perfectly acceptable pop, country or folk influenced numbers though some do stand out more than others.
If you like Belle and Sebastian or the Shins or even the ever so slightly geeky sound of Suzanne Vega, you might find something here you enjoy.
If I had to make one criticism it's that after five other studio albums, Veirs should know by now where her talents lie and so there shouldn't be the really weak links like "Black Butterfly" and "Phantom Mountain" that punctuate this album.
Overall this is a pleasant and likeable collection of songs that should appeal to people who like intelligent pop music with just a tinge of Americana. I look forward to the next one.
The digipack can be bought from CD101 for £7.95, while the standard CD package is available from Amazon from £6.16
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Pink Light
2 Ocean Night Song
3 Don't Lose Yourself
4 Drink Deep
5 Wandering Kind
8 To The Country
9 Cast A Hook
10 Phantom Mountain
11 Black Butterfly