Laura Veirs - July Flame (Bella Union)
Laura Veirs is the sort of singer-songwriter it's all too easy to take for granted, releasing new albums of dependable quality at regular intervals without really making radical shifts in direction. Amidst all the noise currently being made around female talents (the elaborate fantasias of Joanna Newsom or the supposed prodigious maturity of Laura Marling), it would be easy for 'July Flame' to fall by the wayside. This would be a real shame, for there's definitely an argument to be made that 'July Flame' is Veirs' most accomplished work.
As its title suggests, 'July Flame' works as a warmer, brighter flipside to the icy charm of her previous career watermark 'Carbon Glacier'. The albums Veirs has released in between the two have all been good, but maybe burdened by the weight of one or two standout songs apiece. 'July Flame' is a good deal more consistent - brimming with largely simple, unaffected but strikingly beautiful songwriting. The arrangements are mostly minimal but characterised by delightful textural nuances.
Veirs continues to work with producer Tucker Martine and 'July Flame' contains the finest results yet from this fruitful collaboration. I became tremendously excited when I heard the news that REM were recording new demos with Martine, for he is exactly the sort of producer to reinject some mystery into that band - but it seems they have returned to the ugly, hyper-compressed commercialism of Jacknife Lee for their forthcoming album. What a shame because judging by what Veirs and Martine have achieved here - an unassuming, home recorded work still full of richness and beauty - a Martine-helmed REM might have been something both surprising and special.
'July Flame' delicately unfolds into a mission of quiet discovery. There's the gentle reverb (applied carefully and thoughtfully) that renders 'I Can See Your Tracks' a mesmerising introduction. There's the otherwordly, slightly woozy waltz of 'Little Deschutes' and the southern gothic tapestry of 'Where Are You Driving?'. Veirs seems to have ironed out some of the harshness from her voice and, whilst these songs are not without her trademark wistful melacholy, they do seem to have a warmer, more enchanted gaze. Perhaps best of all is the sensual, rapturous but avowedly linear title track.
Veirs comes across as a disarmingly modest writer and performer (and her humility comes across in her sincere tribute to legendary session bassist Carol Kaye), but also a meticulously honest one - and this is perhaps why she appears to have so many admirers. Colin Meloy from the Decemberists campaigned for 'July Flame' to get a proper release when Nonesuch records declined to put it out (did they learn nothing from the 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' farce?) and Jim James from My Morning Jacket provides some suitably spectral vocal harmonies. It's good to hear James' voice in a more sympathetic context after the uncomfortable fusions of 'Evil Urges'. I suspect 'July Flame' will be one of the albums I listen to most this year, such is its winning combination of adventure and accessibility.