From Seattle, Mt. Rainier is present and not present. On a clear day, as you look south, it is the dominant mountain, distracting from the city's buildings. Even when Puget Sound has clouded over, obscuring any possible view, the mountain's presence is unavoidable.
The 14,410-foot peak stands as an ominous reminder of nature's beautiful danger.
The gigantic mass of rock and ice is at once an awe-inspiring natural wonder
and the most potentially dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range. Knowing that
heavy populations of people live downstream from its glacial runoff imparts an
of your own mortality and your role in nature's grand scheme. It's a sort of
Laura Veirs' fourth album, Carbon Glacier (the title alluding to Mt. Rainier's formation), is steeped in that same Zen-like consciousness and finds her placing herself at one with her natural surroundings. Crafting Carbon Glacier mostly from stream-of-consciousness lyrics and acoustic guitar foundations, Veirs evokes a cold, enigmatic Northwest landscape and draws a parallel to her own existence. She seems lonely, and it shows in the desolate, wintry landscape she portrays through her introspective writing and emotionally distanced delivery.
Seattle-based Veirs released her self-titled debut album herself in 1999, following
in 2001 with The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae, a live recording.
But neither prepared listeners for last year's superb Troubled by the Fire,
nor for the equally strong Carbon Glacier.
The album's opener, "Ether Sings," sets a chilly mood that doesn't thaw through the entire record. "Come with me, we'll head up north/ Where the rivers run icy and strong," Veirs sings as a sort of invitation to her regional tour. The second verse, "The empty theatre is lying cold/ In the shadows of the past," seems more a reflection of her own emotional state than a comment on urban decay.
The second track, "Icebound Stream," which found its way onto this year's Kill
Rock Stars compilation, Tracks and Fields (compilation 2), is an early
summation of Carbon Glacier's best assets. Over spare banjo and stomping
bass-drum accompaniment, Veirs uses a punctuated, conversational vocal style
suggesting a brainy Liz Phair. She attempts the personification of nature in
the first line "Watch! I can flash across the sky/ A lightning bolt from
up on high/ And I can crash into myself." Switching gears in the second verse,
she turns poetic, introspective and a bit eerie "Now! A flower blooms
in reverse/ And a song takes back a verse/ A photograph fades to white" suggesting
dark isolation in both the landscape and her life.
Following "Icebound Stream" is perhaps the album's loneliest song, "Rapture," where Veirs confronts the torments of art. Searching for similarities among such artists as Virginia Woolf, Monet, Basho and Kurt Cobain, Veirs finds the binding tie is their unnerving desire to create. She delivers her most desperate line "Love of color, sound and words/ Is it a blessing or a curse?" only to find a plethora of additional questions, rather than an answer.
More upbeat is "The Cloud Room," a folky dance-pop number on which the lyrics seem to be about nothing specific, offering instead a lighthearted break from the record's contemplative mood. Producer Tucker Martine (Jesse Sykes, Bill Frisell) has taken playful liberties, adding drum loops, synth-riffs and keyboard taps that hardly seem like the work of a singer/songwriter. But Martine seems not so much a producer as a fully integrated band member; his instrumental experimentation stands out on a number of songs the distressed, elastic viola work of string genius Evyind Kang, the vibraphone on "Rapture," and Karl Blau's harmony vocals on "Shadow Blues," offering a Calvin Johnson-esque baritone contrast to Veirs' enunciated words.
Martine's intuitiveness also allows the record to move with the force of nature
and the crisp of winter, with no hint of city life, save for "Salvage a Smile," on
which Veirs sounds more fueled than ever before. "Red on the left/ Green on the
right/ You can see me coming in the morning light/ Red-eye a.m./ Here I lie," she
sings in a rush, hurrying to keep pace with her frenzied electric guitar work.
Following a ghost-ship viola interlude by Kang, the mesmerizing "Blackened Anchor," Veirs
brings it back down to earth with the drifting "Riptide." This quiet song, with
its steadily picked guitar-playing, wavers with the ocean's ebb and flow and
is a dreamy closer, resonating with the promise of warmth and salvation. "I'll
float here with the shrimp and brine/ And on my cheeks and hair/ The salt will
always shine," she sings, as if pacifying herself, convinced that the inner peace
she cannot find in life resides in nature.
In contrast to the embracing, melodic campfire quality of last year's wonderful Troubled by the Fire, Carbon Glacier, for the most part, feels stark and minimalist. While Fire's songs tended not to stray from traditional folk structures, Carbon Glacier is a serious departure, its songs showing little trace of any structure. As Veirs recently explained, "I tried to write songs that weren't verse-chorus-verse, but could still hold up on their own."
In many ways, this is Veirs' most memorable album, perhaps because it is such a departure. It's curious that an artist who has crafted such indelible choruses as "Taking me back to your bedroom eyes/ Brighter than the starlit summer skies" would want to veer away from the melodic material of her past. But the best music often comes as the result of a personal challenge.
The challenge here? Crafting a record that fully captured the emotional diversity
of the Northwest landscape. And she has met her challenge. Here, Veirs' songs
echo the loneliness of the Cascades, meditate on the moodiness of the Puget Sound
region, and drift to sea on the numbing freedom waves of the Pacific.