Seattle songstress' magnificent fourth album finds her deep in fire and ice

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Winter Wonderland

Less than ten years ago, Laura Veirs was struck on being a geologist. Then, exploring a remote desert corner of northwest China with a bunch of fellow students, she was left alone to tend camp among yaks and inquisitive native herders. Wielding her “crappy five-dollar Chinese guitar”, she began a-tinkering. Immediately hooked, she hasn’t stopped since. In translation, the Taklamakan desert reads thus: “You can get in, but you can never get out.” She admits today that that’s exactly how she feels about songwriting. And here, in all its frosted glory, is the 30-year-old’s first masterpiece.

Carbon Glacier?named after the breathtaking black-and-white mass on Mount Rainier’s northern slopes?is one great impressionistic mood-sweep. The first lines of opener, “Ether Sings”, serve as declaration of intent: “My wooden vibrating mouth [ie. guitar]/Sing me your lover’s song/Come with me we’ll head up north/Where the rivers run icy and strong.” And there she pitches camp for the duration. Taking the mythically proportioned American wilderness as giant metaphor (she grew up on the cusp of the Colorado Rocky Mountains), Veirs explores unpredictability, cyclical rebirth and the tortuous scramble for artistic perfection via gently exquisite songs both dark and luminous. Obvious, it ain’t. Where others have used frozen panorama as a symbol for emotional atrophy and exile, these icy wastes glint with the resonance and possibility of life, sounding both grand and intimate in the same breath. If there’s a literary parallel, it’s in the clinking Newfoundland ice-packs of E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. Or the awed white wonder of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.

Veirs gained sudden attention?and much praise?with 2003’s Troubled By The Fire (not least in these pages), though it was in fact her third album. Having formed punk bands at college in rural Minnesota, she’d studied geology and languages before her Asian enlightenment fed her into the river of traditional folk-blues. Fetching up in Seattle in 1997, she dabbled as a teacher, maths tutor, science demonstrator and gardener before succumbing to the calling. Inspired as much by Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt as Bikini Kill, her eponymous debut from 1999?done and dusted in under three hours?was a spiky folk-punk affair, followed by the similarly self-released The Triumphs And Travails of Orphan Mae (2001), a softer, subtler soup of old-time ballads. With Troubled By The Fire, she emerged as pretender to Gillian Welch’s sepia-mountain crown. Paradoxically, though, Carbon Glacier shares more common ground with The Triumphs And Travails… Whereas Troubled By The Fire was Veirs scratching different itches (a touch of bluegrass here, a country twang there, a snifter of agit-rock), the prickly Triumphs And Travails was more coherent, more focused. Certainly, the mood and tone of Carbon Glacier has its arctic root in the likes of “John Henry Lives” and, especially, “Through December”.

But mood isn’t paramount here. It’s the voice: faintly metallic, vivid, briny. The voice that made Eliza Carthy weep when she first heard it. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, there’s nothing coquettish or self-consciously vulnerable about Veirs. Like Welch, she relies on the strength of her conviction. No attempt to coo her way into your heart. Of her top-drawer peers, she’s less lonesome than Gillian, less breathy than Jesse Sykes, soulful as Emmylou, less abrasive than Paula Frazer, tougher than Cat Power. Her phrasing, particularly, is exquisite, teasing words into fresh meaning, a jazz singer’s feel for wringing subtle emotion from the faintest of inflections. On “Wind Is Blowing Stars”, for instance, it’s just a simple voice and rolling guitar motif, cupped in a string arrangement from heaven. Stunning.

The Tortured Souls, Veirs’ working band, are hardly slouches either: Karl (The Microphones/Little Wings) Blau on bass and guitar; Steve Moore on keys and brass; longtime producer (and Jim White/Mark Olson collaborator) Tucker Martine on drums/percussion; Lori Goldston, formerly tour cellist with Nirvana; Keith Lowe on upright bass; and the amazing Eyvind Kang, lately a touring staple of Beck’s, on viola. Though Carbon Glacier was often improvised live in the studio, nothing strays from orbit. Typical is “Riptide”, where Kang’s on-the-spot strings nearly steal the show. Veirs herself admitted to Uncut that it blew her mind: “When I hear it, I feel deep black water all around me.”

“Icebound Stream”?lyrically alive with lightning bolts and flowers blooming in reverse?is a vocally supple tour de force, almost chopping at the words. Against weird bursts of noise and sunny acoustic, Goldston’s sawing cello break is jaggedly, bleakly beautiful. “Rapture” addresses directly the artist’s powerlessness in the face of nature’s immaculate design, comparing Monet’s Giverny gardens and Japanese poet Basho’s “plunking ponds and toads” to the tree that writes “great poetry, doing itself so well”. Namechecking Kurt Cobain (“junk coursing through his veins”) and Virginia Woolf (“death came and hung her coat”), Veirs asks: “Love of colour, sound and words/Is it a blessing or a curse?” against barely plucked guitar and lovely, melting piano topple.

“Lonely Angel Dust” tackles the same artistic dilemma of trying to bottle nature’s easy beauty, where rose petals and ice crystals formed from flakes of heaven are bound to eventually fall. Veirs is fully aware of the stark lesson: that, audience or no, creation itself is the true artist’s only reward. Even if they’re ultimately doomed. Elsewhere, “Wind Is Blowing Stars” uses the outdoors as physical?as well as spiritual?panacea, urging us to “take jumps in wintry lakes/Feel the water’s skin and face/Huddle up close, nice and tight/We might absorb enough moonlight.”

Only the greasy feedback gobs of “Salvage A Smile” gatecrash the overall mood, ushering in the instrumental sea-squall of “Blackened Anchor”. Likewise, “Chimney Sweeping Man” flashes a clean pair of heels when it comes to Dylanesque narrative, its lonely protagonist locked into a life pattern of squandered promise, writing letters to pass the time. Bookending all three are the liquid country-blues of “Anne Bonny Rag” (with toy piano ragtime and blasts of trombone), followed by “Snow Camping” (a tickle of keyboards, jazzy guitar and a happily tuneless neighbourhood-kid chorus giving it the same eerie wash as Smog’s similarly-baggaged “No Dancing”) and “Riptide”, where Veirs uses lost-at-sea for lost-in-the-world. The album’s closing verse bristles with mad hope: “I’ll float here with the shrimp and brine/And on my cheeks and hair/The salt will always shine/And with this phosphorescence map/A sailor’s chart, a mermaid’s hand/Something I’ll find.” You bet she will.

All done, Carbon Glacier is the unmistakable sound of a songwriter hitting their stride, pouring herself into each syllable, flexing into new life. Miss Veirs’ feeling for snow is something else.