Soft, dreamy, caressing sounds, sometimes concealing darker, more sinister ideas than the music suggests, continue to emerge from the Colorado-born singer/songwriter Laura Veirs almost 20 years after her debut. The post-Warners phase of her career has spawned a remarkably consistent series of albums, including a children’s collection and, two years ago, an exceptional collaborative effort with k.d. lang and Neko Case (
case/lang/veirs). Veirs created her own sub-genre at the outset of her career – what might be termed “geology-pop”. To this day, her songs abound with imagery of rocks, earth, land and water, reflected by outdoorsy, pastoral production. With song titles including “Watch Fire” (on which Sufjan Stevens makes a guest appearance), “The Meadow”, “Canyon”, “Mountains of the Moon” and “Lightning Rod”, it’s apparent that Veirs’s personal infatuations remain roughly the same, and that her tendency to use agrarian metaphors to examine the human condition is still in play. The Lookout is her tenth album and it brings back a touch of the sparkling electronica of Year of Meteors (2005), with less of the brash, gnarly electric guitar (it’s present, but not mixed so drily) that defined Warp and Weft (2013).
The verses of “Margaret Sands”, the first track on
The Lookout, have one of those melodies that sounds like an arpeggio exercise in a singing lesson or an ancient incantation. It’s a deceptively simple, sparely arranged folk song, with lilting, bird-like harmonies. Then, on “Everybody Needs You”, the Veirs of Year of Meteors, springs to mind. It’s a billowing, fluttering, pure-pop moment that recalls triumphs of the past, like “Galaxies”. Veirs’s work continues to be characterized by liquid sounds, simultaneously airy, buffed and, this time around, notably titivated with reverb.
“Watch Fire” is another classic Veirs moment. A lithe, dotted-rhythm melody, a whispered Sufjan Stevens response vocal and some pizzicato guitar form the verse, prior to a refrain bathed in vocal harmonies and piano. As always, Veirs manages to use pillow-soft arrangements, not dissimilar to Vashti Bunyan’s, without being fey or indulging in twee whimsy. “Seven Falls”, with a startling lyric in which she reproves herself for moments of unkindness, couches its ideas in a shuffling, country-tinged folk-rock setting and employs one of Veirs’ most affecting melodies.
Where other singer/songwriters will talk about how inspired they were by Joni Mitchell, Veirs has always worn less obvious influences on her sleeve, writing tribute songs about Carol Kaye and Judee Sill. In the 1970s, there was a singer/songwriter (still active today) called Wendy Waldman. On her third album (
Wendy Waldman (1975), she revealed a facility for tunes that sounded like mystical, American mountain music. Veirs, although less versatile a musician shares this knack, and here it’s evident throughout, but particularly on “Mountains of the Moon”, parts of which feel like a pagan prayer. Meanwhile, the title track, set to a gentle but brisk, marching rhythm, is reminiscent of her sterling work on the case/lang/veirs album.
There are signs of a sag, halfway through. “The Meadow” reveals someone’s technical limitations on the piano (alas, my review copy doesn’t include musician credits, but it could be Veirs). Listen carefully to the left-hand, and it becomes apparent that the song is written around the “Heart and Soul” chord progressions, something I could live without ever hearing again. It’s this aspect of Veirs – that her music, when pulled apart, is sometimes constructed with very rudimentary musical ideas dressed up with studio trappings – that can be frustrating. But perhaps this is just as much a strength as a weakness – after all, there’s an art to writing with economical components and, in any case, one doesn’t come to Veirs expecting Steely Dan-esque, jazzy chord-play.
“Canyon”, which comes next, makes up for it, with a zesty, adventurous spirit while “When It Grows Darkest”, features a mysterious, Gothic, highly seductive string arrangement. “Zozobro” brings back some of the prominent electric guitar of
Warp and Weft. “Lightning Rod”, the verse see-sawing between two chords, is an example of Veirs’ strength and weaknesses coming together. The reverb, echo, and whatever additional treatment has been applied, conspires to muffle the consonants of her singing. If only, in addition to full credits, review copies still came with lyrics. Without them, some of The Lookout‘s content evaporates, and it’s hard to determine the words in the sea of sound.
The danger is that Veirs’ work, if experienced as wallpaper music, will come across as merely pleasant when it’s really so much more. A song like “Lightning Rod” could be mistaken for slightly soporific, suburbanite coffee-table music. Pay attention, and you get a much richer experience. Veirs’ ideas and her supple, rangy melodies are always worth hearing closely. She remains a singer/songwriter with several things going for her; a distinctive singing voice that could only be her, a unique lyrical bent and, in Tucker Martine, a long-time producer/husband who helps her present her ideas in the best possible light.
Veirs creates tension by concealing sad or ponderous subject matter behind cheerful, hum-along melodies, a technique passed down from forbears like Dory Previn, and she eschews sentimental chord progressions. She’s not a polarising artist; it’s hard to imagine anyone having either a pronounced aversion or a slavish devotion to her. Still,
The Lookout captures her in finest form. It’s a terrific effort that bests several of its predecessors, including July Flame (2009) and Saltbreakers (2007).