Published Jun 15, 2016It was k.d. lang who had the crazy (wonderful) idea: Neko Case, Laura Veirs and she should make a record together. It took the songwriting supergroup three years, but here it is — and it actually lives up to expectations.
On opener "Atomic Number," the three singers' distinct voices swap lines: lang's rich alto, Veirs' delicate, breathy yet steady voice and Case's torchy wail overlapping and combining together, much like the pure elements they're using as metaphors. Yet this is hardly a template for the record as a whole, which sometimes evokes '50s and '60s girl groups (the k.d. lang-led "Honey And Smoke," with its tumbling "I know, I know, I know, I know" call and response vocals is a good example) but more often than not finds Case, lang and Veirs taking turns leading for a song while the other two harmonize. The overall impression is of stylistically fused alternation.
The collaboration is arguably Veirs-heavy; she had a hand in the lion's share of the songwriting, her husband Tucker Martine produced the record and she plays guitar on it. Plus, her 2013 album Warp And Weft may have been a bit of a trial run for this project, as both lang and Case appeared on it.
Yet, the record feels quite balanced, and it doesn't really matter how Case, lang and Veirs got there — they did it. The intricate and delicate "Behind The Armory" and jangly "Delirium" sound like Neko Case songs though all three wrote them, and lang's jazzy blue ballads (one of which is actually called "Blue Fires") contribute a whole other dimension to the record. It takes a number of listens for it to sink in how profoundly right-on her vocals are.
case/lang/veirs wrote the songs together, but they didn't get them down in a vacuum: Martine did a typically fantastic job assembling a cast of musicians, and case/lang/veirs — a forward-thinking folk album that's percussively textured (thanks chiefly to Glenn Kotche, but also Rob Burger on keyboards and piano) with wonderful details like horns that appear for just one song on bouncy, bursting "Best Kept Secret," and the moody, oboe-like use of Burger's claviola — sounds absolutely verdant.
The strings on case/lang/veirs are so smart, sensitive and integral to the feel of the record that they almost warrant being called the album's fourth singer. Or, to be more accurate: two more singers, as two different groups of string players were involved, the first fleshing out a handful of the strongest songs, pop-style, and the second, arranged by Stephen Barber and performed by Tosca String Quartet, more expansive and orchestral.
Veirs is (or at least was, until now) the least-known member of the brand new group, and I think she's ripe for discovery. Her "Song For Judee" (which almost didn't make the cut) and "Best Kept Secret" are both moving tributes — the first for '70s songwriter Judee Sill, and the second (the kind of song you wish someone would write about you) for her friend Tim Young, who actually plays guitar on the album.
But then, every song is strong. The thing with this collaboration is that, as on all great records, your favourite songs are liable to shift around a little. And what this songwriting team has to offer isn't just pretty, though it can be that — it's also pretty profound, passionate and substantial. (Anti)