The material world is just too much with us.
Portland, Oregon singer-songwriter Laura Veirs named her ninth album after a knitting term, Warp and Weft, because she considers the disc a tapestry of different elements. It is true that Veirs incorporates a diversity of sounds, subjects, and motifs on the record. There is everything from a train roaring down the tracks to a bicycle bell gently ringing; a 30-second instrumental tune about ghosts to a lyrical one about the founding fathers of America rolling in their graves because of what the country has become; quiet (mostly-) acoustic musings on dancing, dreams, and memories as well as Asian inflected avant-garde jazz riffs. Veirs is all over the place. The album is not as much an embroidery as it is a collage, but whatever one calls this hodgepodge of elements, one thing is sure: the album is a wonderful mix of disparate songs that juxtapose nicely to reveal something greater than the sum of its delightful individual tracks.
Perhaps the two most revealing songs in respect to Veirs’ creative talents are her tributes to other artists: visionary Howard Finster (best known to rockers as the creator of album covers for R.E.M.’s Reckoning and the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures) and jazz harpist Alice Coltrane. Veirs celebrates Finster’s ability to see angels and find paradise in the ordinary and Coltrane’s spiritual journeys. They both inspire Veirs to look within herself to find transcendence. It’s not that Veirs ignores the world around her. She praises the sun, cherry trees, the beach, and other natural phenomenon. The material world is just too much with us. One can too easily lose touch of life’s more unworldly elements.
Warp and Weft is no hippie-dippy New Age paean to the goddess within, but more of a hard-edged look at life that doesn’t ignore nonphysical reality. Plus, Veirs does this to catchy melodies with strange inflections that keep one wondering where she will go next. Each song seems to take off from a simple start and meander to unknown places. So when she breaks into a chorus of the old spiritual “Motherless Children” in the middle of a song about an orphan girl who later deserts her own husband and children to presumably die of the cold, it just seems logical.
Veirs is joined by alt-rock luminaries such as Neko Case and Jim James, and KD Lang even appears on one track; but her primary instrumentalists are string maestro Carl Broemel, bass master Karl Blau, keyboardist Rob Burger, and percussionist Tucker Martine. Martine also masterfully produced, recorded, and mixed the album to give it a rich sound. Martine allows Veirs’ voice to soar without ever getting ethereal. Veirs may be in the forefront of what happens, but her band mates are ever present to ground her so that even the more fantastical elements she sings about seem real.
Since each cut is different than the one before it, there is a natural urge to link them through contrast and comparison to find a hidden message. There isn’t any, or maybe it’s more precise to point out that the significance is openly displayed. Veirs takes her disparate inspirations and turns them into songs. Taken as a whole, they show how rich life is, whether one refers to cultural or natural elements, the past, present, or future, corporeal existence or dreamy memories, etc. They are not competing dualities but all part of life’s fullness. Tapestries tend to focus on a single message. Warp and Weft shows that there are many communications that form one big messy magnificence.