case/lang/veirs makes the case that these three artists should do more than a once-off collaboration.
It's easy to imagine that case/lang/veirs is a long-running outfit rather than a quick collaboration. The three singers and songwriters -- Neko Case, k. d. lang, and Laura Veirs -- each have their own long histories as solo artists and had only briefly come together before. Here, though, they blend their voices and styles easily. If the collaboration itself was newsworthy, the execution of case/lang/veirs secures the release as one of the more notable albums of the year.
None of the singers aspires to prominence, yet none of their individual sounds are subsumed in the larger project (the same could be said of percussionist Glenn Kotche of Wilco, experimental music, and unusual drum kit fame). Their voices remain distinct in their merging, even if Case and Veirs could pass as vocal cousins. lang's sturdy alto offsets veirs's folk-pop intonations, and both are filled out by Case's voice, which sounds like it originated in a bar but was never meant to stay there.
The opening moments of the albbum, among the highlights, show the trio fitting together. On “Atomic Number”, they trade lines, signing, “I’m not the freckled maid / I'm not the fair-haired girl / I'm not a pail of milk for you to spoil.” The harmony sounds like a statement of unity, the lyrics read with the strength of individuality, and the song traces a grace that permeates the album. A person can have specificity worth an atomic number yet still sharing a cohering mercy.
The album swims through complex looks at relationships, sometimes painful ones, but frequently connections that are potent and necessary. Veirs's sunny '70s pop number “Best Kept Secret” isn't entirely straightforward but it resolves in sunshine:
When we hung up I was lifted
Turned my head up to the rain
Shortest day of winter
But the light found me again
The openness of the songs, each delivered corporately and in context, allows an increasing hook into the world of the album.
That world develops not through isolated feats of songwriting, but through steady collaboration. The driving vision seems to come from Veirs, who has four solo songwriting credits, but the rest of the disc benefits from co-written songs. That approach (rather than having everyone bring their own songs, potluck-style) allows for a cohesion to develop even as the songs shifts mood and, to a lesser degree, styles. A slow jazz lang track can work and even develop a choogling Case number.
That group creation tends to produce receptive singers who are well aware of their perils, but willing to risk the problems. It's a world with plenty of hurt, and an awareness of it, but in which hurt isn't the guiding force. “Behind the Armory” leaves troubling imaginative gaps, but the dangers and problematic emotions there become resolved through the comfort in spirals of “Delirium”, the gorgeous acceptance of “I Want to Be Here”, and the reflection without success of “Why Do We Fight”.
All of these experienced come through a precise but not rigid sort of Americana. The singers not only know what to do, but they know how to build songs into performances. The surrounding musicians are tight and the production brings everything to life. It's rare that these sorts of collaborations feel like they should be more than one-statement diversion, but case/lang/veirs, intentionally or not, makes the case that these three artists shouldn't stray from the slashes for too long.