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Sunday, August 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Northwest Recordings: Laura Veirs, from Seattle to Europe and back
By Tom Scanlon
Hiding in the shadows between folk, pop and alt-country, Laura Veirs' sound is difficult to categorize and hard to shake; her full, invigorating songs stay with you, running around your brain like mini-movies. Her droll, powerfully simple singing style suggests an indie-pop version of Suzanne Vega or an edgier Aimee Mann.
Veirs has the curious distinction of being better known in Europe than here at home. (What's that line about prophets?)
Now that she has one of the most respected independent labels behind her, she may get more attention in the U.S. Nonesuch Records, which is releasing Veirs' new "Carbon Glaciers," is home to k.d. lang, David Byrne, the Magnetic Fields and Randy Newman.
Before a recent open-air show at the Seattle Art Museum, where she entertained a long line of Van Gogh-ites, Veirs said she had no plans to move to Europe; she was raised in Colorado, and has blossomed artistically since moving here. She said Seattle virtuoso guitarist Bill Frisell suggested she send her CD to Nonesuch. "I'm the first non-established artist they've worked with, so they don't really know what to do with me."
The label is helping to set up her first U.S. tour; Bella Union, her European label, has been instrumental in getting her set up therefor trips around Europe.
Her songs themselves can be quite a trip. She can be spare and literal, or mystical, as on the album's second song, "Icebound Stream":
Watch I can flash across the sky
Live, she sings casually, almost as if she's thinking out loud, and just happens to have a guitar, backing band and p.a. system. At SAM, she sang "Rapture," the album's third song, and, if the sound system wasn't quite right for the intimate visions, it sure made for a fitting soundtrack to the museum:
the fate of Kurt Cobain
As usual, Veirs has some powerful collaborators on her album, including her "Tortured Souls" backing band of Tucker Martine, pianist/keyboardist Steve Moore and guitar/bass player Karl Blau. Talented local jazz-pop musicians Lori Goldston, Eyvind Kang and Keith Lowe appear on the album, produced by Martine perhaps Seattle's best producer.
The album is fairly diverse, ranging from Americana moodiness to ballads; it's mostly and wisely restrained and mellow, but Veirs might consider cutting loose on a low-tuned electric guitar, here and there.
"Carbon Glacier" came out in Europe a few months ago, to much acclaim. A writer for London's The Independent called the album "a masterpiece of tremulous contemplation, wonder and creative tension. On the album Veirs uses the vast Pacific northwest from the Rocky Mountains to the icy Pacific Ocean as a backdrop for personal fears, longings and memories." Another U.K. publication suggested "Laura Veirs might be the bridge between the alt-country ghetto and the Sheryl Crow-revering mainstream."
Veirs is currently in Europe again, returning for a Bumbershoot concert before resuming her international tour. For more on this poetic musician, go to www.lauraveirs.com, where she keeps fans abreast of her travels, as in:
". . . The random and scrumptious Italian pizza places, the freakish cats of Rome, the open ears everywhere, the brisk swim in Barcelona, Holy Island mead, the instrument museum in Brussels (KB was sobbing), the helpful strangers all 'round ... let's not forget the poetic Pescara late-night radio show and the art-as-life outlandish Scottish music party ... and the reindeer and forest berries for breakfast in Stockholm... "
What a talent; even her blogs read like art.
Saeta is another under-appreciated Seattle act. The chamber-pop trio's elegantly gloomy sound has yet to find much of a following, and Saeta is admittedly an acquired taste. Even a big fan like this writer had to let "We Are Waiting All for Hope," the fourth Saeta album, grow on him; once it started, it took hold, like ivy.
While the band is not a huge draw, it has attracted some top-notch producers. Kramer, the Low and Galaxie 500 slow-rock pioneer, produced Saeta's previous album, and Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Pixies) took over the control booth for this one.
With the stunningly somber Matt Menovcik a singular singing voice that might be described as sounding like Nick Cave with a vicious hangover and upbeat Lesli Wood trading leads, Saeta has a pleasing low-high, sour-sweet, depression-optimism vocal style. Menovcik plays guitar and accordion, Wood piano and Bob Smolenski underscores the melancholy nature of Menovcik's writing with his haunting cello. For more on this rich, intense trio, visit www.saetamusic.com.
Though I amuse myself by updating their name as "The Prezzies," the sound of The Presidents of the United States of America is the same as it ever was: pure pop rock. After a hiatus in the late-'90s, the Presidents are not likely to return to multi-platinum status. Nor are they on a big label. The Prezzies are hawking "Love Everybody," a new full-length, at www.presidentsrock.com, and through iTunes downloads, and play Bumbershoot in a few weeks.
Glorious, featuring Black Lab vet Geoff Stanfield and former Hell's Belles guitarist Amy Stolzenbach, releases its self-named debut this week. Details: www.gloriousband.com.
One of the best CDs of the year is nothing new: "Wheedle's Groove," a sizzling collection of Seattle soul and funk from 1965-75. Check it at www.lightintheattic.net. You haven't heard "Hey Jude" until you've heard the Overton Berry Trio mess with it.
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