The last time I heard a Laura Veirs album, I worked at Tower Records in Boston and I have to admit that, save for one or two songs, the album (Year of Meteors) bored me to tears. So I kind of surprised myself by shelling out a few of my hard-earned dollars for Veirs’s July Flame the same day I picked up Spoon’s Transference (for some reason, I have a hard time just buying one album. I don’t know why, but I always feel better buying two. It’s not always for purposes of comparison either, because sometimes the two albums have absolutely nothing in common with each other). I was further surprised to find, at first listen, that I preferred the Veirs album to the Spoon one by a landslide. At this point, having recovered from my initial shock, I can comfortably say that July Flame, an album named after a variety of peach, is a masterpiece, an album whose simple beauty puts it somewhere between Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Middle Cyclone on the Scale of Albums that are So Gorgeous They Kind of Freak Me Out. And Middle Cyclone (if you don’t know, Middle Cyclone and Fox Confessor Bring the Flood are albums by Neko Case. They are literally distractingly beautiful records and if you don’t own them, you should) is probably near the top of the scale. I am seriously weirded out by how much I love that record. I have relatives, none of whom read this blog, that I like less than I like Middle Cyclone. Of course, I also have relatives I like less than Wavves, but who doesn’t?
Where was I? Oh yeah. July Flame. It’s a fairly quiet album, something you could adequately describe as mostly folkish, but Veirs brings in instrumental and vocal collaborators (not least of whom is Jim James, also known as the singer from My Morning Jacket, also also known as the Best Singer in Rock Music Right Now*) to give July Flame the kind of texture that sets it apart from your typical coffeehouse folk fare. Credit for those textures should be shared with producer/percussionist Tucker Martine, whose contribution to the album can be best exemplified by the tympani drums he inserts into “Silo Song,” giving it just a dash of epic awesomeness without the slightest hint of pretension. That’s a fine line to walk, but Martine and Veirs toe it perfectly over 13 tracks, none of which march past the four and a half minute mark (“Wide-Eyed, Legless” even has a fucking bass clarinet in it, or I am much mistaken).
Veirs’s lyrics are somewhat literate (she adapts the Rimbaud poem “The Sleeper in the Valley” into a song of the same name) but never overly complex and they result in songs that have a refreshing sort of poetic directness. There’s something (enormously positive, in my mind) to be said for lines like, “I want nothing more/ than to dance with you” (from “Little Deschutes”) or “Can I call you mine?” (from the title track). The story goes that Veirs was battling some serious writer’s block before making this record and, apparently, the July Flame peach helped her get over this. I’m not sure how that works, but based on the results, I might reach for the peaches the next time I have writer’s block.
The other thing I love about July Flame is its seasonal feel – there’s the obvious connection to spring and summer (on one track, the “Sun is King” and on another, “Summer is the Champion”) via the titular peach but there are tracks on this album that, for whatever reason, remind me of walking home from the train station during a Boston winter. Songs like “Where are You Driving” (the chorus of which is harmonized in just such a way as to produce chills in me every time I hear it) and “Little Deschutes” feel like a winter night in a city that actually has winter (we don’t have it here in Los Angeles, and I can see the appeal of not having winter, really. But I miss it. Sometimes, I need to come in from the cold and Los Angeles doesn’t ever really have the kind of cold I want to come in from. We had some mid-seventies weather just a week and a half ago), a city like Boston or Portland (where July Flame was recorded). At any rate, there is winter, spring, summer, and fall on July Flame and that makes it a perfect album for wherever you are and whatever time of year it happens to be.
I listen to a lot of music, something which is fuel for (and is fueled by) this blog. I love nothing better than to find an album that I can’t stop listening to, even when I know I should move on to something else in the ever-increasing stack of albums I have to (and want to) get to. Those are the albums that remind me why I love music so much. Every once in a while, I come across an album like TV On the Radio’s Dear Science or the National’s Boxer or Laura Veirs’s July Flame (or the aforementioned Neko Case albums) that is just so captivating that it becomes worthy of the word “necessary.” I know there are people who won’t like July Flame (I know people who don’t like the National, but I forgive them), but I’m willing to risk cliche by asserting that it is the first necessary album I’ve heard in 2010.
*I firmly believe that musical taste is subjective. After all, there are people who like Kid Rock – people who are so far out as to consider what he does “music” in the first place. That said, I can brook no dissent regarding Jim James. You listen to Evil Urges or Z or At Dawn or “His Master’s Voice” from the otherwise forgettable Monsters of Folk album (not to mention his immensely badass harmonizing on July Flame) and tell me James doesn’t have the best voice in rock music right now. And if you can tell me that, you can probably tell me that you don’t believe in vaccines, global warming, the heliocentric model of the universe, or anything else for which there is abundant scientific evidence.