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Laura Veirs - Saltbreakers

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Artist: Laura Veirs

Album: Saltbreakers

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Apr. 3, 2007

“Sorry I was cold, I was protecting myself,” Laura Veirs begins, the first line in the first song (“Pink Light”) of her sixth luminous album, in a voice that is clear and pure and vibrato-free with just the hint of a child’s blurry vulnerability at the edges. It sounds personal, confessional, unadorned and yet with the next line the verse turns fancifully metaphoric. “Drifting along with my swords out flying /Tattering my own sails and I tattered yours, too.” It is the first in a salvo of 12 episodes of songwriterly magical realism, set in tidal pools and seagoing vessels and populated with pirates and mermaids and sentient forest fires.

The songs on Saltbreakers have a cool, intellectual shimmer to them, even in all-out rockers like “Phantom Mountain” and “Don’t Lose Yourself.” Here, Veirs places a 4AD glossiness over strident indie rock cadences – a forest of fuzzy guitars in “Phantom,” a syncopated clangor of tom toms in “Don’t Lose Yourself.” Yet even these relatively straightforward cuts contain striking phrases and incisive metaphors, as in “Phantom Mountain” where a mist-wrapped mountain vista is both purely itself and a stand-in for human confusion.

The difficult internal rhythms of Veirs’ lines recalls Joanna Newsom in places, in the hesitant stop-stepping cadences of “Ocean Night Song” and “Nightingale.” Her voice sounds a little like Newsom’s too, full of tangible breaths and gulps and eccentricity, yet she can also remind you of Mirah and even Suzanne Vega as she alternates between warmth and chilly grace. Her wordless flights of melody – in “Pink Lights” for instance – have a bell-like tone, hanging on for a millisecond after she’s stopped singing.

Veirs works again with producer Tucker Martine (he also produced Carbon Glacier and Year of Meteors). Martine’s background as a drummer is, I think, really useful here. Even the softer arrangements have a rhythmic spine that saves them from air-brushed blandness. It’s hard to imagine “To the Country” working, for instance; without its scratchy beat; it would dissolve into Celtic Enya-ism. Karl Blau is back again on guitar and bass, and Steve Moore plays keyboards. The backing is mostly fairly subtle, leaving plenty of space for Veirs’ voice, though the title track has a bit of a drunken singalong flavor to it.

The songs are built around natural metaphors, mostly but not all oceanic, with subtle connections to observations about human life and love. “Drink Deep” is maybe the best of these from a lyrical standpoint, taking the image of a forest fire as a metaphor for love’s consumption. The skill, though, is in how lightly she steps on the connection, and how the perspective shifts from lover to loved one. “Drink deep my love,” she says, apparently to the raging flames, “For the water is gasping for your mouth.” It’s a reversal – you don’t often think about how the fire feels about the water – but it works really well. And it’s the union of this fire and water and earth that leaves the possibility of renewal implied in the line, “I smell in the charred dark mess...a little green, a little red.”

There’s a sense of myth in many of these songs, in the personification of natural forces, yet the personal and lyrical is never buried too deep. And, as with all decent poetry, there are lines that you simply can’t figure out in literal terms, but that stick in your head anyway. Perhaps the loveliest line in the whole record, in the way it weds melody to image, comes in “Ocean Night Song,” where Veirs sings “Swimming with my fallen blossoms / I drink from the source above.” What does it mean? Anyone’s guess. But there’s a sensuality to it that’s undeniable.

Saltbreakers is a wonderful album – a little glossy on the surface maybe, but saved from preciousness by its intelligence, restraint and soaring images. It sometimes veers dangerously toward New Age, but pulls back always in time with lovely, sharp and unexpected images.

By Jennifer Kelly

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