There’s something going on in the Pacific Northwest this year. Whatever it is, it must be in the water, literally and figuratively. First, Modest Mouse releases We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, a pirate-y type of angular Tom Waits-influenced post punk album that made Johnny Depp look like a Halloween-costumed punk. Now, after Isaac Brock has given his dramatic interpretations of the sea, there is another ten-letter singer, Laura Veirs, who is putting her mark on the briny deep. Saltbreakers, a word that Veirs uses for waves on the sea, is her sixth album and arguably her best. I fell in love with Year of Meteors, and especially the incredibly catchy song, “Galaxies,” but Saltbreakers travels far deeper into both nature and the soul, maintaining a cohesiveness that her past albums displayed, but never this well.
Laura Veirs has come a long way from recording herself on her acoustic guitar and self-releasing albums. She has a backing band, once called the Tortured Souls but now called Saltbreakers, one member of which is producer / drummer Tucker Martine, also responsible for helming albums by The Decemberists. The combination of band and production value has vaulted Veirs into at least cult-worthy status, being featured on NPR and on a song by the aforementioned group with Colin Meloy. Veirs is tailor-made for the NPR crowd. Her songs are smart and incisive, often using literary devices and references that might sail over the heads of the modern everyday listener. Remember, most people didn’t realize “The One I Love” was not a love song, that “Every Breath You Take” was a little creepy, and that “Ironic” was in no way reflective of its title. Veirs even goes so far as to write a song based on Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago’s book, Blindness. I know of two people beside myself who have read the book, and I work in a bookstore!
Not only is Veirs’ album smart, it is also incredibly fun and listenable. Veirs’ voice, much like Brock’s, is unique. Some may compare her to Suzanne Vega in timbre or even to Aimee Mann or Liz Phair, but you know when you’re listening to a Laura Veirs song. Just as the sea, the allegorical choice of Veirs’ introspection, there is much to explore on Saltbreakers, and it’s an absolutely captivating journey. “Don’t Lose Yourself,” a.k.a. the Saramago song, is breakbeat powered folk-pop at its finest, that is if it’s actually ever been done before. “Drink Deep” actually reminds me of a Modest Mouse track in Veirs’ staggered delivery, making her seem the Elizabeth Swann to Brock’s Barbossa. The title track stands out as well thanks to a set of well-placed handclaps and a smile inducing male backup chorus. “To the Country” outdoes everything preceding it, which is really saying something, as an eight person Baptist choir accompanies Veirs on a song she recorded in Johnny and June Carter Cash’s cabin in Nashville. The result is something akin to Sufjan Stevens on his first trip to the South.
There may not be a song on Saltbreakers that is as immediately catchy as “Galaxies,” but don’t mistake that for not being engaging. Veirs’ underwater explorations are as revealing about emotional reality as a Jacques Cousteau special is about the literal journey beneath the waves. When she sings, “Sorry I was cruel / I was protecting myself / Drifting along with my swords out flying / Tattering my own sails / then I tattered yours too,” we are immediately transported to a particular place thanks to the imagery, and to another thanks to the honesty. With an infectious backing band and production gloss galore, Veirs has stepped onto a whole new and bigger stage with this album, but perhaps it’s even more revealing that the two most powerful songs on the album are the most stripped down, that being the last two tracks, “Black Butterfly” and “Wrecking.” With just piano and acoustic guitar respectively, Veirs exhibits the strength of her songwriting ability, which seems to improve with every release. But don’t mistake Veirs for any mere Buttercup waiting for her Dread Pirate Roberts. She’s more like the Siren, luring unwitting sailors with her beautiful voice to their untimely deaths, and she just wants to let someone know just how bad she feels about it.
Aimee Mann- Lost in Space
Suzanne Vega- Nine Objects of Desire
Modest Mouse- We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank