Laura Veirs lingers perhaps unfairly in the shadow of flashier, quirkier, louder young folkie starlets. On her seventh album, July Flame, Veirs mines the same territory as those darlings She & Him (who released a fantastic album in 2008) and that quirkier, head-scratchier pair, Scarlet Johansson and Pete Yorn (who released a passable album in 2009).
July Flame, however, never veers into that dreaded, cutesy, folk-for-folk’s-sake territory, and it sets a lovely and devastating high water mark for all those folk singer-songwriters aiming to release anything meaningful in 2010.
Here, Veirs breaks from the usual full-band fare, crafting instead intricate and perplexing acoustic arrangements, often accompanied by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, whose Kentucky tenor – present especially in the opening measures of Carol Kaye – accents and counterpoints Veirs’ as if the two were scattered seeds on the same Oregon breeze.
Of Veirs, James has said, “Laura’s like the queen bee and my ear is her hive; she nests and makes honey in the hairs of my cochlea.” In attempting to describe Veirs’ trademark voice, no description seems to fit it so well as this, and while it may seem over-sentimentalised or even fanaticised, it’s truer than any description of her timbre could ever be.
On the fragile back of Veirs’ deft and subtle acoustic finger-picking and her whispered, often lazy voice, July Flame succeeds in transporting the listener to a countryside vista, thick with ragweed, moonlit dances, barns and banjos. In the subtle, home-recorded arrangements, between the occasional string quartets and pianos, the bonfire and the meandering stream nearly seem to make it into the mix, permeating the whole album with a summer soul, lazy and hazy as an afternoon nap in the grass.
The album opens with a whisper in the form of the lovely I Can See Your Tracks, on which Veirs finger-picks like Nick Drake, and sings with the lilting dirt-road naivety of a young Joan Baez. Factor in James’s haunting backing vocals, and you’ve got a slow-building stunner, an album opener that both demands an active listener, and floats like a wayward love letter borne on the gentle current of a summer stream.
The lead single and title track features a clean electric guitar and a thumping bass drum, over which Veirs’ doubled vocal track careens like a summer haunting, singing about “unslakeable thirsting in the backyard.” A subtle electricity buzzes like fireflies before the impromptu viola line – courtesy of the brilliant Eyvind Kang – ushers in a full string quartet and a choir, who ask angelically, “Can I call you mine?”
On the piano-led Little Deschutes, Veirs sings, “It sure is hard to dance across the room when you’ve got one foot on the floor and one foot outside the door.” And she sounds like someone who knows. When she sings, “I want nothing more than to dance with you,” the immediate effect is visceral, her celestial longing accompanied by upright bass and thunked electric guitar feedback. But Veirs’ dance is not rock ‘n’ roll this time round; it’s a slow and subtle embrace, and July Flame is all the better for it.
July Flame is an album that will likely go relatively unnoticed, and that’s a damn shame. There’s no flash, no pomp, nothing cute about this album, and as such, it seems destined to teeter on the crowded outside edge of the indie-folk scene. But Laura Veirs makes an excellent case for herself as one of the most under-recognised singer-songwriters working today and the album’s summery soul lingers long after first listen. Should July Flame cross your path, you’d do well to climb up to the hayloft and give it a spin.