Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Return & A Review

I can't believe it's been a year since I've last posted! A post of all the happenings in between will come later. But mostly it's been this: I changed my name to Heather Storey because I met a really awesome kid and we want to hang out together all the time for the rest of our lives! Hip Hip Huzzah!

For my triumphant to blogging, I've chosen a really spectacular album to be released on Tuesday and my review to go with it.

Laura Veirs is a truly spectacular musician and this album is a little more rockin' than her previous ... 8! But it's so good. So intelligent and a great palate cleanser, in case you thought most of the music being made these days is self-absorbed and lame.

Tuesday marks the release of Laura Veirs’ ninth album, Warp & Weft on her own Raven Marching Band Records. Written during her second pregnancy, the album is, as Veirs says, “an exploration of extremes -- deep, dark suffering and intense, compassionate love.” There is an upfront simplicity to the album that is endearing and attractive. Veirs’ generally raw and imperfect vocals are much more polished on this album, but still have significant lightness contrasting to the craft and presence of the rest of the instruments that give it interest and credibility. It’s the craft and intelligence of this album that are most astonishing.

A prolific musician, Veirs is joined by other giants of indie folk fame on this record – Jim James (My Morning Jacket), kd lang, Neko Case (The New Pornographers) and Brian Blade (The Fellowship Band and studio jazz drummer) amongst them. Together they create a tapestry of sounds and colors blurring the lines between Veirs’ thoughtful lyrics and the inventive instruments surrounding them. The album’s title comes from a weaving term referring to the two kinds of threads used to create a piece – the warp being the stronger, horizontal threads that form the framework for the whole and the weft being the lighter vertical thread that creates the color. Which part of the album is the warp and which is the weft is up for debate, but what’s certain is there is an intricacy in design and a continual balancing of sounds and themes.

Characteristic of Veirs’ music, Warp & Weft prominently features instrumental breaks in nearly every song and one track (“Ghosts of Louisville”) is only 29 seconds of instruments and wordless voices. The opening track of the album will be familiar to anyone who’s walked into a Starbucks recently as “Sun Song” has been on regular play and showcases Neko Case’s recognizable voice in the background. The album then moves from one up-tempo tune to another, but this time “America” is characterized by lower guitar tones and darker lyrics. The sounds of this track are striking as well – organs, distorted guitars, keys, and some choruses as well. The third track is a tribute to Howard Finster – an American folk artist and Baptist minister whose mission was to spread the Gospel through his paintings and garden museums. He’s come to be also a pop icon for his collaborations with R.E.M. and the cover art for their Reckoning album. The Veirs’ tune “Finster Saw the Angels” is a simple & beautiful reflection on Finster’s life and work – tender and honest it asks “Finster saw the angels, why can’t I? Oh, Hand of Love, come guide me.” The track has strong blues influences, with a great breakdown in the middle, that hearken to Finster’s southern background. The album again takes a darker turn in “Dorothy of the Island” where Veirs’ reworks Clapton’s “Motherless Children” as the chorus lamenting “motherless children have a hard time when mother is dead,” especially poignant as Veirs’ was pregnant with their second child at the time. In the seventh track, “Say Darlin’ Say,” Veirs’ vocals finally take a prominence and clear leading, appropriate with the simple structure of the tune, but it definitely opens up and rocks out, ending with a grand deconstruction of all the sounds where literal bells and whistles hearken back to a wild west landscape. And there are handclaps. Who doesn’t love a good handclap section? The album closes with a swinging jazz tune reminiscent of some of Solomon’s words of wisdom “Even in the lean times/I take pleasure in the wind chimes//and in the moments of excess/I try not to overdo it.”

In a world where so much music produced talks only of personal feelings, momentary crises or sheer nonsense, it’s invigorating to listen to Veirs’ songs of real people, legends outside of herself, and universal existential musings. In a genre typified by cynicism and self-interest, it’s refreshing to hear an honest, humble voice. From a purely musical standpoint, the production of Warp & Weft brought to the table by Veirs’ husband and longtime collaborator Tucker Martine is of the highest quality. All the sounds are pure and crisp, even the distortions are delivered well and not compromised. The structure of the songs is traditional, but the sounds and themes are unusual and twisted. This is a very intelligent album and a pleasant surprise.

By the way, Veirs’ & Martine’s son, Oz was born on May 2nd.