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“July Flame is her seventh album, but it might be the one she’s remembered for,” I wrote a few years ago, and now Warp and Weft arrives, with the outward appearance of clockwork but no such inward ease or guarantee, to question my premature assessment. Laura Veirs is a great artist still at the peak of her powers, so if I’m determined to locate her single moment of most immediate appeal, again, while she’s vital, I either have to say I was wrong, that July Flame now looks like preparation for greater work, or that Warp and Weft inherits that album’s confidence and security of legacy, and goes wild. She’s always had her eye on the dark end of the street, but now she ditches July Flame’s willed islands of safety, its “unslakable thirsting in the backyard,” and goes wandering in the dark. For one thing, motherhood intervened—“I’m haunted by the idea that something terrible could happen to my kids but that fear pushes me to embrace the moment,” she says—but in every other way, too, Warp and Weft is the album that had to happen after July Flame, to darken and complicate its beauty.
The contrast is evident immediately, in the shifting attitude of Veirs’ sun songs (now as formidable a category as Stephin Merritt’s moon songs). July Flame had “Sun is King,” a mostly serene ode in which Veirs is humbled by celestial certainty: “There’s no messing with our orbiting.” On Warp and Weft opener “Sun Song,” she seems to have forgotten this fact, finds herself in the process of remembering it. The sun has just returned, and only its presence can reassure her. It lights her child’s hair, she thanks it, she finds solace in a warm hand, but an earlier alarm (so early it was only a memory when the song began) never quite disperses. The sun’s absence might easily become permanent, our steady orbit aside. Much of the album strikes this alternately reverent and paranoid tone. The former is familiar, the latter a bit less so, but by the end these qualities are inseparable, as if some kind of atonement is going on, or as if the music can only continue by honoring what threatens it.
This sets the scene for the album’s major standout, “America,” a state-of-things song that earns its title with nine lines of perfect, gut-punch figurative language. The song works as a broad survey, per the force of its poetry, but Veirs is most squarely focused on gun violence. “Every madman finds his peace in America,” she sings on the ninth line—no, wait, according to the lyric sheet, he “finds his piece.” This kind of modest wordplay is one way the song achieves its painful effects. Against these words, the band plays a strange, triumphant key, with confusing overtones added on keyboard during the teeming one-word chorus. The song finds its peace, too, but all its notes feel wrong. Veirs locates herself in this tapestry, on the penultimate line, and the terrifying image she produces could only spring from that mother’s fear. The album’s most grotesque idyll: “New kind of wilderness for me in America.”
It’s not all bad news. Unchastened wonder appears here, too, but even the album’s second best, the wide-eyed and joyful “That Alice,” is exquisitely painful, in a way. The song is a hero tribute that’s satisfying in a standard way, but that also embeds a startling degree of perspective and ideas about women and music in its plain grammar: “She became his wife, made a lot of music before he died,” for example. He is John Coltrane and she is Alice Coltrane, and the statement looks simple enough, but by framing her in terms of him, Veirs suggests the way even an enlightened world frames its women artists, the way sometimes only detective work leads back to their art. The song buzzes with the lateness of the tribute; detection is both an intoxicating project and a solemn occasion. “You made a million journeys in your mind / I can feel it in the way that you keep time,” goes the bridge, and the meaning of the word “time,” on such a sad and jubilant song, on such a bridge, in a women’s realm, is so dense that it could never be unpacked. Instead, with its mystery intact, the word becomes a meta-context that moves through the rest of the album and defines its grace.
How so powerful? Well, on top of everything else, Neko Case lends backing vocals on “That Alice,” her third appearance on the album, and makes a big impression. She’s already Warp and Weft’s best reviewer (“As a listener, it makes me feel loved. As a musician, it makes me feel challenged and engaged.”), and her own career serves as a signpost for the perfect balancing act Veirs’ music has also become. Case, the woman who lives halfway between country and power pop (to be simple about it), has a true peer in Veirs, another performer who’s so generous that her tribute to a jazz harpist ends up her album’s stormiest rock number. Less noticeable a presence is k.d. lang, who sings harmonies on “Finster Saw The Angels” but whose voice only barely registers in the mix. It’s not a disappointment, exactly, or, at least, I’ve learned how to modify the way I think about these kinds of invisible guest appearances from huge stars: lang lends an aura, and it subtly distorts the molecules of the song, even if that’s only the sound of Veirs aglow in the presence of an idol.
The star of “Finster,” and the thing that carries much of the album, is Veirs’ electric guitar, which interacts with pedal steel and then plays an impressive coda of John Fahey-esque sharp plucking. At the other end of the album, a dozen styles later on “White Cherry,” she drops the guitar and her band plays wintry jazz while she sings, and she seems to have examined all the raw material of the previous songs and determined the best design for living: “I try not to overdo it.” In an inhospitable country, she’s scaled family life and music to a size that might allow them to endure.
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