There's something fascinating about Laura Veirs. As she performed on stage at Neumo's last night, it was hard to look at anything but her. Maybe it was the ethereal lighting: the four members of her backing band were backlit in reds and blues, while she was glowing in a soft yellow spotlight.
Photo by David Belisle Laura Veirs and the Hall of Flames performed at Neumo's Wednesday night, opening for Blind Pilot. Her new album, July Flame, drops in January.
It could have been the strange stillness of her face; she seemed to be staring off in the distance at something, although it's not clear what. Or how in her cat-eyed glasses and shoulder-length hair she appears slightly awkward but--with her clear voice and artful lyrics--confident at the same time. (Could also be that she's visibly pregnant, and you don't see many pregnant musicians playing to packed clubs.)
The most likely explanation, though, is that there's something puzzling about her compositions that begs figuring out. The Seattle-turned-Portland songstress's music seems off-kilter, as if she took each individual element of her songs, tipped them at a 45 degree angle, and put them back to together again.
Her own voice--and the way she uses other voices in her songs--is one example. At times, Veirs more speaks than sings. Her vocals are level and clear but not particularly melodic. She contrasts this by adding distinctively-voiced musicians to her backing band, the Hall of Flames. (Like Anacortes musician Karl Blau, who has toured with Veirs in the past).
Seattle musician Eric Anderson played bass and sang with Veirs last night. Anderson is also the primary creative force behind local band Cataldo, and he's known for his slightly nasal voice in a higher register. He's not the mostly likely back-up singer, but he makes sense in Veirs' band--his voice lends a certain sweetness while still sounding unique. And when all the members of her band create harmonies, it sounds more like a separate, distinct instrument than melody. She performed "I Can See Your Tracks" from her upcoming album July Flame (out in January on her own record label, Raven Marching Band Records) at Neumo's. When her band--including Israel Nebeker from Blind Pilot, the show's headliner--sang "You're half way/Down to New Orleans" in harmonic unison, it resonated throughout the room.
There's also the uniqueness of Veirs' instrumentation. She's one of many folk-tinged artists to add a violin player to her ensemble, but she uses the instrument differently. The violin is active rather than passive in Veirs' songs, so it creates texture the way a guitar would, instead of just adding another layer of noise. And on most of her songs, there's no drumming, so the beat and rhythm is driven by strings.
Maybe the most fascinating thing about Laura Veirs' music is how lovely and charming it is, despite all the weirdness. She closed her Neumo's set with "Galaxies" off 2005's Year of Meteors, a sort of hypnotic melody with distorted guitars. But it's also got this perfect pop sensibility, like something Lisa Loeb would have written in 1994. It's kind of music that's easy to hear but so challenging to understand.