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When I played the self-titled case/lang/veirs for the first time it took only 45 seconds for me to realise this album was something special. By midway through the second song I was completely smitten. As individuals, Neko Case, k. d. lang and Laura Veirs are each accomplished singer-songwriters, but their unlikely collaboration has produced one of the albums of the year. This is the kind of album that can renew your faith in music, even in humanity itself. Despite all our flaws, we human beings have within us the capacity for transcendence and the artistry of case/lang/veirs is living proof of that.
So, what happens in those first 45 seconds? “Atomic Number” begins with a simple triad, fingerpicked on a nylon-strung acoustic guitar. Lightly swinging percussion joins in, closely followed by our three major protagonists, each singing a line of the verse in turn before combining for the chorus:
I’m not the freckled maid
I’m not the fair-haired girl
I’m not a pail of milk for you to spoil
Why are the wholesome things
The ones we make obscene?
Latin words across my heart
Symbols of infinity
Elements so pure
Hearing these three exceptional voices one after another, then joined in three-part harmony, is musical bliss. It was k. d. lang who brought the three of them together and in a recent interview she attributed her decision to gut instinct. “It was a guess. No, it was truly instinctual,” she told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “I didn’t really know, but I did feel like there were enough differences and enough similarities that would blend together to create something unique.” Her instincts were absolutely correct; however, lang couldn’t have known that their different songwriting “voices” would also combine so well. Neko Case came up with the initial lyric for “Atomic Number”, but in the end it was written by all three women and this beautiful song is a testament to the strength of their union as songwriters as well as singers.
The main vocalist on “Atomic Number” is Case but the next song, “Honey and Smoke”, puts the spotlight squarely on lang, something that seems to be as natural to her as breathing. “Honey and Smoke” is a classic k. d. lang torch song and, as you would expect, her performance is exquisite. The honey and smoke of the title is a metaphor for the art of seduction, as suitors pour honeyed words into the ear of their beloved, but it could equally describe lang’s sublime talent. Enticing yet impossible to pin down.
Last month, Case, lang and Veirs were interviewed together at Music Millennium, a Portland record store, and lang recounted the chain of events that led to this alternative supergroup. “I kinda always wanted to do a band thing, or a Traveling Wilburys thing for a while,” she told the audience. “I moved to Portland from Los Angeles in 2012 and I met Laura and Neko around the same time up here. And just one night it hit me, I was just sitting around and went, ‘Neko Case and Laura Veirs’, and I wrote them an email, and within about half an hour they were both, ‘Hell, yeah! Let’s do it.’ ”
The initial idea was to form a light-hearted “punky girl group” and record an album of covers, but soon, inevitably, the three songwriters decided to compose the songs themselves. At Music Millennium, Veirs described their working methods: “It happened every way. We wrote different ones, we morphed them together, we started from scratch, we started with someone’s original lyrics and added a melody, we would replace all the lyrics to one song with new lyrics but keep the melody. Every different song changed and morphed around, and each person [added] their stamp.”
Of the 14 songs on the album, four were written by all three women, four were by Veirs and lang, and another two by Veirs and Case. The remaining four were written by Veirs alone, who has clearly been the backbone of the writing partnership.
Veirs takes the lead on “Song for Judee”, one of her solo compositions. The poignant song was inspired by the tragic life of cult ’70s songwriter Judee Sill:
You never talked about your past
About the drugs and walking the streets
They found you with a needle in your arm
Beloved books strewn ’round at your feet
You loved the sons of the pioneers
And the Hollywood cowboy stars
You were just trying
To put a hand to where we are
Again, this song starts simply, with only acoustic guitar and Veirs’ pure, breathy vocals, but the pretty arrangement blossoms with the subtle addition of piano, electric guitars, cello, viola and violin, and, of course, the three-part harmonies of the main trio.
I call them a trio but in practice it is more of a quartet, because producer Tucker Martine has been involved with the project from day one. Martine also happens to be Laura Veirs’ husband, and he was privy to the many songwriting and demo sessions at their house as the album came together. The three singers relied on his fresh set of ears and wise counsel whenever they reached a creative impasse. When I spoke with her in April, Case was happy to give Martine credit. “Well, that’s why Tucker is such a valuable part of our band,” she told me. “We consider him in the band, too, because he informed a lot of the musical decisions and gave his two cents. Suggested things. And he was there the whole time; he was there giving us feedback and good advice while we were in the throes of the most basic parts of the songwriting. We were constantly showing it to him and going, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Martine’s intimate knowledge of the songs paid dividends when it came time to record. His sympathetic arrangements and superb production skills brought the songs to life. To me, this album is flawless. Everyone involved is at the top of their game and case/lang/veirs is easily one of the best-sounding records released this year, beautifully mastered by the legendary Bob Ludwig.
After abandoning the idea of doing an album of cover versions, Case, lang and Veirs next discarded the notion of singing everything together. The songs they were writing refused to fit into that restrictive template, so they just followed where the music took them, letting one vocalist take the lead while the others added harmonies wherever it was appropriate. In the end, the songs seemed to choose the singers as much as they chose the songs. “If k. d. did ‘Honey and Smoke’ , it’s like, what am I gonna add to that?” says Case. “It’s perfect, you know? Perfect. Or the Judee Sill song that Laura wrote: it’s perfect. It didn’t need anything but for me to come and sing harmony.”
Case sings lead on “Atomic Number”, “Delirium”, “Behind the Armory”, “Supermoon” and “Down I-5”. Lang’s songs are “Honey and Smoke”, “Blue Fires”, “1,000 Miles Away” and “Why Do We Fight”. And Veirs takes centre stage on “Song for Judee”, “Greens of June”, “Best Kept Secret” and “I Want to be Here”. Case and Veirs sing the album’s final track, “Georgia Stars”, together but there are backing vocals somewhere in every song and they contribute enormously to the texture of the music. Having such talented singers sublimating themselves to a supporting role is incredible and shows the level of respect they have for each other. To hear k. d. lang wistfully singing “ride it like a painted carousel” in the background at the conclusion of “Supermoon” is worth the price of admission alone.
“I Want to Be Here” was written by all three women, and to my mind the lyrics reveal the motivation behind what they do and the idealism they all share in the pursuit of their art:
I just want
I wanna be here with you
Not bracing for what comes next
I’ve got some new words
I can see sideways
If there’s a limit
It hasn’t found me yet
My friend is an artist
Doesn’t fit in
Lost a front tooth
Can’t keep a job
But the things you make
Are so beautiful
They bring me joy
Don’t you ever stop
The recipe seems simple enough: three brave artists, with a clear vision, executed perfectly in the studio, with taste and finesse. Easy, right? So why aren’t all albums this good? I wish I knew the answer. Perhaps it’s because this album doesn’t strive to be contemporary; its only aim is to be what it naturally is, a purely artistic statement. Thus it is neither in nor out of step with the times. If I had to assign this album a genre, I would simply label it “music for grown-ups”. This is music the way it’s meant to be – straight from the heart, honestly performed, by peerless artists.
OPERA Così fan tutte
Sydney Opera House, July 19-August 13
Canberra Theatre Centre, July 20-23
LITERATURE Icelandic Sagas with Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason
Brisbane Powerhouse, July 22-23
Lighthouse Theatre, Warrnambool, July 19-20
Mildura Arts Centre, July 23
VISUAL ART The Metaphysics of Space: Painting a body of light
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, July 19-30
DANCE The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever
Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, July 16
Hobart Regatta Grounds, July 16
Adelaide Botanic Gardens, July 16
Sydney Park, Sydney, July 16
Woodford Reserve, Blue Mountains, July 16
Pritchford Memorial Park, Lismore, July 16
Bedford Park, Brisbane, July 16
Elizabeth Quay, Perth, July 16
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2016 as "Triple throat".
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