Colorado born singer-songwriter Laura Veirs has been pretty prolific since releasing her debut self-titled album ten years back. That album was a stripped-down affair that was recorded live and featured just the singer and guitar. Since then, Veirs has made five much-admired records with her producer and partner, Tucker Martine, using a full-band sound. Now, she’s back with number seven… July Flame.
Perhaps as may be guessed from its title, July Flame is centered around the lush imagery of summer days and warm nights. A recurring theme is the mutual exclusivity of a longing for stability and the ability to achieve it. Beauty is transient and should be treasured, while life is for living in the moment. The “July Flame” in the album’s title refers to a peach variety, which provided the inspiration for the song of the same name and helped end writer’s block. “I’d been in a songwriting slump at that time and writing that song pushed me over my plateau and into a new place where I was surprising myself again. I invented oddball tunings so I was really using my ear to search out new-sounding melodies and patterns,” says Veirs. “I wrote this album from a searching, soulful place. I hope it elicits a real gut feeling.”
The album itself gets off to a really promising start with “I Can See Your Tracks”, with Veirs’ strong yet pure and folksy voice sounding almost disembodied, supported by contrastingly rich harmonies and featuring a chorus with an African feel, which adds to the sweeping lushness of the song. The distinctive finger-picking guitar style used by Veirs is also heard to great effect in the opener. The title track “July Flame” follows in a different vein with a cyclic electric guitar theme running through it, decorated with imaginative vocal and instrumental layers and, not least, an unusual string arrangement added to the mix.
We continue with “Sun Is King”, a country-flavored offering with imagery of the natural world, which decorates the whole album, to the fore. “Where Are You Driving”, “Life Is Good Blues”, and “Silo Song” provide a run of more folksy songs, yet each has real individuality in the vocal arrangements and instrumentation. The deft production touches employed by Martine are much in evidence, and you get a sense of subtle variation, while realising that, unusually, there is very little in the way of drums here, and what’s more, you hadn’t missed them. The piano and string driven “Little Deschutes” next shows a more bleak, mournful side of Veirs, much more indie in its mood than the foregoing songs. The haunting feel of the piece is accented by otherworldly effects used on Veir’s vocals here and there and an atmospheric double-tracked guitar and strings break.
“Summer Is The Champion” is more uptempo with brass to the fore, yet still somehow retains a lazy feel reflective of the season. “When You Give Your Heart”, “Sleeper In The Valley”, and “Wide-Eyed, Legless” are a trio of songs which have definite echoes of Imogen Heap wedded to a folk muse in their construction and delivery. Veirs’ vocals are softer and inviting here, in sympathy with the gentler subject matter.
The penultimate song, “Carol Kaye”, is an affectionate homage to the legendary session bass player of the same name whose playing adorned many seminal recordings, not least The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and songs from “Homeward Bound” to “I’m A Believer”. Finally, “Make Something Good” sees the album out with Jim James of My Morning Jacket duet-ing. The deep guttural style of James works well alongside Veirs’ high range delivery, and the song is a positive affirmation of the songwriter’s art.
Most of the songs on July Flame are pop song length but pack a great deal into their three minutes or so. This is serene music peppered with interesting and less obvious melodies, the kind you can listen to again and again to discover new things. Laura Veir’s lyrics are ripe with fertile imagery drawn from nature, which seems a world apart from the singer’s early career brush with punk rock, and add to the enchanting mood which pervades the entire record. More than that, July Flame sounds really fresh and heartfelt. And that is some achievement these days.