As with much of Laura Veirs’ music, it is best when it’s not over-thought. That is the problem with previous album Saltbreakers, a much bigger album arranged for a much bigger cast - often brilliant but sometimes lacking in consistency. Year of Meteors strikes a perfect balance (as does the aforementioned Carbon Glacier), letting the vocals take centre stage - striking, unique, and very much self-taught. As you might expect, July Flame takes the same approach.
Opener I Can See Your Tracks floats along with a wistful melody and some gorgeous old-time backing vocals. The title track is an undoubted highlight, with a wonderful weird chorus of musical accompaniment climaxing in an odd orchestral arrangement. If the album was produced by Jónsi from Sigur Rós all songs would sound like this. This is followed by the sun kissed country vibes of Sun King, the soft edges immediately highlighting Veirs’ hard, often flat voice. Musically the song is perfect and gorgeous guitars adorn the last minute.
Where Are You Driving? opens with a brief organ solo, followed by light guitars and a vocal that tries to achieve the same airiness, instead lapsing into a dark cold chorus. Better paced is Life Is Good Blues - another highlight, and a great piece of ironic song writing that is over too quickly. The subtle drama of Silo Song is oddly familiar but beautifully arranged as Veirs asks “Have I gone up in smoke?”. Another darker song Little Deschutes juxtaposes two vocal sounds, as if Veirs is having a conversation with her past self via an old tinny radio. More great instrumentation includes a Stranglers-esque flash of organ, delicate piano and muddy electric guitars. Atmospheric and engaging.
Summer Is The Champion (predictably) continues the theme as the most ‘full’ song on the album. Unfolding like a band trying to get into a flow, more great piano and guitar work drive it forward. Veirs gives another solid vocal and actually sounds like she’s having fun. Another upbeat highlight, even finding time to throw in a horn section for the finale. When You Give Your Heart is much more stripped-down and poetic filled with great lines: “And my stampeding buffalo stops in her tracks and watches the snow…” and after some wordless musing, “This is my song of love, gathered from stuff above…”.
Into the last quartet, Sleeper In The Valley is another brilliantly crafted song, the complexity of the music hidden by a central guitar melody. The strings build in the mesmerising second half and the sampled crow calls add to the atmosphere. Wide-Eyed, Legless is much more strange and playful, like an old folk song given a modern sound, before another great song and tribute to a fellow musician and inspiration: Carol Kaye. Namedropping Good Vibrations and Homeward Bound in the opening verse (on which Kaye plays), Veirs’ lament is simple and direct. July Flame closes with Make Something Good, a realistic attempt to sum up the album. It is startlingly honest and almost the perfect way to end any album. The musical outro is the only moment of obvious self-indulgence to bring things to a downbeat, reflective end.
Laura Veirs has made no secret of how July Flame was conceived. She was trying to find inspiration and the album came from “a searching soulful place” and a spontaneity driven from a quest for new ideas and sounds. And even though it is business as usual, it works. At the heart of this is still Veirs’ vocal ability, which is basic and straight-forward. It is also very ‘real’ - something unique and rare these days. But the songs can suffer because of it, usually relying on heavy production. And for an album that is supposed to convey warmth and embrace, July Flame is at times cold and distant; something that makes Carbon Glacier such a great piece of work pulls these songs into the world of morning after weak dawn sunlight and embers. And that is the very point: that ever summer brings a winter and fighting is futile. In the same way that fighting your own musical soul also drags you back. The search for something new has brought Veirs full circle, only now she is in a much warmer, lighter and ultimately safer place.