LAURA VEIRS HAS spent a long time trying to get your attention. A feminist punk-rocker turned dreamy folk-rocker, Veirs has been releasing amazing albums with Nonesuch for five years. She even counts Colin Meloy of The Decemberists among her biggest fans, but her best efforts to date, “Year of Meteors” and “Saltbreakers,” haven’t garnered enough mass acclaim for her to be a huge name in the folk-rock community. Then again, no one ever said playing banjo was the easiest way to get respect.
But with her seventh release, “July Flame,” it’ll be hard to keep ignoring Veirs. The album, written mostly in the barn behind her Portland, Ore., house, is stripped of the heavy layers characteristic of her previous work and not much of a rock album at all, letting violins and organs often stand in for drums and bass, and the result is generally dazzling. It does take a few listens to settle in to the slightly off-key, discordant sounds that pepper the album, but the richness you eventually find is well worth it. Veirs’ voice takes some getting used to, especially if the off-key experiments on “July Flame” are your first exposure to it — while not typically lovely, it does have a remarkable charm that doesn’t meld with the melodies so much as it lays them in stark contrast.
Also putting Veirs in an acoustic-folk class of her own is her lyricism — odes to the beauty of a lake or the colors of a tree should be cliche by now, but Veirs deftly avoids romanticizing the farm life by considering even the dark sides of nature, from the “serpent coiled under [a] collar” to “paddling through the hail storm / Clothes ravaged, the leaves all torn.” And rarely does she bother to tell stories in complete sentences. In her sparse, image-heavy poetic style, every word counts. The risks of “Wide-Eyed Legless” pay off in full: “Down among the dead / the wide-eyed / and the legless / only half a head / half a mouth to / laugh in the porthole,” though “Life is Good Blues” rings hollow at times: “Life is good when the band is smoking hot / The drummer drums/ Like it’s the last chance that he got.”
Compared with the rest of the album, leadoff track “I Can See Your Tracks” is unremarkable despite the guest vocals by My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James (who’s had his fingers in just about every folk project for the past couple of years. The album really kicks off with the peach-inspired title track “July Flame”, one of the few songs here that features a distinctive beat, and one of Veirs’ prettiest songs in her vast repertoire.
The album builds up to great heights after that: The lazy “Sun is King” takes inspiration from a Neko Case twang, and “Where Are You Driving” is as perfect as starry-eyed bluegrass can get. The downright catchy “Wide-Eyed, Legless” (no wonder it’s also the first single) has the finger-picking and agitated strings just right, underlined by probably the best use of a bass clarinet ever to be heard in pop music. The album fumbles a little with “Carol Kaye” towards the end: Veirs’ tribute to the prolific songwriter and musician never transcends the hokey rambling off of Kaye‘s songs that comprise most of the lyrics.
Still, despite a couple of missteps, “July Flame” is a worthy addition to Veirs’ growing collection of impressive music feats. January may be an unusual time to release a folk-pop album about green grass, brilliant flowers and “clouds of dandelion,” but “July Flame” provides a surprising but welcome glimpse at some warm summer days to look forward to.
Written by Express contributor Afton Lorraine Woodward
Photo by David Belisle