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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “July Flame,” Laura Veirs

23rd December

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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.

Click here for Laura Veirs’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Nick Cave: The Prince of Darkness Speaks in an Australian Accent (But that Doesn’t Make Him God)

11th April

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“Be mindful of the prayers you send
Pray hard but pray with care
For the tears that you are crying now
Are just your answered prayers
The ladders of life that we scale merrily
Move mysteriously around
So that when you think you’re climbing up, man
In fact you’re climbing down
Into the hollows of glamour, where with spikes and hammer
With telescopic camera, they chose to turn the screw
Oh I hate them, Ma! Oh I hate them, Pa!
Oh I hate them all for what they went and done to you”
–Nick Cave, “Oh My Lord,”
And No More Shall We Part, 2001

There comes a time when a great songwriter’s work eventually builds a monument of such indisputable glory that fans and media alike exchange objective criticism for the kind of polite noise everyone’s making about the latest from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig!! Lazarus Dig!!!, as if to handle their work with the remotest honesty is to befoul the names of the gods. Let me make one thing clear: Nick Cave has without any doubt attained the heights of rock ‘n roll divinity, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be pulled to the ground when he asks for it. And with Lazarus, he doesn’t just ask–he begs.

As with other recent outings by similarly gargantuan lyricists, such as Patti Smith’s Trampin’ or Leonard Cohen’s disastrously unfocused Dear Heather, Cave’s Lazarus exudes a conspicuous polish and complacency that culminate in the most pedestrian album of his career, despite its ambitious “Hey! Let’s tell the story of Lazarus rising from the dead, but throw in some bullshit about Harry Houdini at the same time, just to fuck with ‘em!” concept. When the idea sounds more interesting than the work it produces, it’s probably because the idea actually wasn’t all that interesting after all. And no amount of frenzied bluster and gesticulation in Cave’s dime-store-quality video for the title track can change that (part of the problem is that the whole Fu-Manchu thing Nick’s got going on is more interesting than the song.) It’s all noise and no nuance this time around–the exact inversion of everything Cave fans expect of this otherwise brilliant man.

But it’s too late now–the establishment’s chorus of homage-paying bobbleheads has chimed in en masse, dragging the most tired blurb-worthy cliches from the tomb where they were wisely abandoned several decades ago. “The band sounds better than ever!” Uncut exclaims. Yawn. Has this person actually listened to Abattoir Blues or Let Love In? Really, Uncut? Better than that? Yeah, maybe not.

But it gets better–considerably better, in fact, as with this morsel from Entertainment Weekly: “Cave spits out his woebegone lyrics as if he were a holy ghost-filled preaching machine leading the world’s funkiest revival meeting.” A holy ghost-filled preaching machine? Did this mofo actually WRITE that? The joining of Jesus with Garrison Keilor and a fundamentalist version of H.G. Wells is admirable, but only for its phenomenally tortured language.

And then, of course, we get the usual “the band just keeps getting better with age” motif, exactly the kind of tossed-off drivel a nameless journalist scribbles on a napkin in lipstick in a panicked effort to meet a deadline, prompting countless others to cooperatively bray along in their respective rags–and they have. It’s eminently clear that most rock journalists are paying less mind to the music than to the name on the cover it’s wrapped in.

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The several talking songs on Lazarus (like “Night of the Lotus Eaters” or the title track) are palpably reminiscent of Lou Reed’s many forgotten “fuck you” albums, rubbish like Ecstasy wherein Lou arrives at the unfortunate conclusion that his lyrics are of such majesty as to require only that he stand somewhere close to a mike and read them off his legal pad while the band plays something listenable. It’s this very presumptuousness that undercuts Cave’s performances here, a combination of indifference and indulgence that suggests Nick’s been reading his own clippings. Gone is the gut-deep rave against the world in the brilliant “Oh My Lord” from 2001’s memorably haunted And No More Shall We Part. Gone are the McGarrigle sisters summoning a backdrop of distant ghosts to the misted edges of the song. Gone is the ballsiness of opening an album of ballads with a line like “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.”

Instead we get a self-congratulatory Cave luxuriating in the density of his own chiseled lines while spitting stale similes like “you came on like a punch in the heart,” accidentally stumbling here and there into a vocal melody that almost approximates song. The band accompanies Cave in a drunken nausea of whiny violins and one-chord riffs that condemn most tracks to the monotone rut Cave is so clearly steeped in. At times, as on the entirely discordant “Midnight Man” or “Moonland,” the band simply collapses into an unlistenable jazz of dispassion. When Cave released the jam-packed double album Abattoir Blues in 2004, a mature masterpiece that integrated the blistering abandon of his Birthday Party days with the brooding balladry of Boatman’s Call, he suggested that fans ought to listen to disc one first, and then resort to disc 2 only when they grew hungry for a new Nick Cave album. Well, I find myself famished after listening to Lazarus, and so you’ll understand if I return now to the Abattoir to get my fill.