You don’t know it yet, but you are already a fan of Laura Veirs. You’ve fixed dinner or cleaned the house with the television braying somewhere off in the background when that LG Optimus cell phone commercial came on, and suddenly the song in the ad was no longer off in the distance. Suddenly Veirs’s voice rushed into the forefront of your mind like the memory of a lover long gone; nostalgia mixed love and loss into some sweet melancholy you’d like to hold onto for a while, maybe forever. You didn’t know it then, but you were listening to the opening track of Laura Veirs’s July Flame, and it’s about time you did know. It’s About time a lot of people know, actually, about this magnificently gifted singer/songwriter out of Portland, Ore.
Several songs on July Flame play like love letters to summer–songs like “Summer is the Champion,” “The Sun is King” or the brilliant title track, which easily ranks among the finest songs of the year as it gathers into an angered sea of haunted strings and backup vocals. “Can I call you mine, can I call you mine” Veirs intones as the track pulls you deeper into the whirlpool of its longing. Elsewhere on the record, the pluck of a banjo reverberates through the open space of the song like someone calling your name from across a cave, the acoustic guitar Veirs strums is recorded with such clarity as to be made of crystal, and her wistful piano work on tracks like “Little Deuschutes” is enough to bruise the heart in the manner of Aimee Man’s “Wise Up” or Nick Cave’s “We Came Along this Road.”
The songs don’t so much bring to mind the season they celebrate as they do the first flower to pierce the melting snow of a long but waning winter. These are songs of renewal, of some emotional torment lived through and left behind, of a yearning as painful as it is alluring. They tell tales of a life lived fully enough to have tempted the dangers of the heart and survived in fighting form, of pain stared down until it turned to poetry. “Sure is hard to dance across the room when you’ve got one foot on the floor and one foot outside the door,” Veirs sings on “Little Deuschutes.” “I want nothing more than to dance with you.” These songs embrace a desire that is as dazzling as it is destructive, and through them all Veirs works toward an understanding that you don’t get one without the other.
Veirs’s Wikipedia page reports that the singer did not “listen seriously” to the folk, classical and pop music that surrounded her in childhood until she reached her 20s. The music she makes today demonstrates that when she did start to “listen seriously,” she didn’t just listen–she absorbed every chord and lyric like a dish rag under a faucet. “Summer is the Champion” borrows the thumping drums and piano of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” before waltzing off with a horn section that evokes the devastating close of Tom Waits’s “Earth Died Screaming.”The undercurrent of percussion on the title track resembles the opening moments of “Mental” by The Eels. And her gorgeous voice is borne of a heritage that includes Natalie Merchant, Iris Dement and Jennifer Warnes. But even as this pageant of influences parades through Veirs’s songs, the record as a whole remains entirely her own and begs for another listen the second it’s over.
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