Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. In the summer of 2008 singer/songwriter Laura Veirs was struggling with writers block. On a hot Portland, Oregon afternoon she and a friend headed to a local farmer’s market where they purchased peaches called July Flames. While she canned the fruit an idea for a song germinated, eventually growing into an album of 13 songs that capture the essence of summer in both its physical and emotional aspects.
July Flame is a strange brew of brainy, joyous songs tempered by lingering melancholy. Bucolic imagery dots the landscape; Veirs writing style is that of a naturalist who captures what she sees, equating it with what she feels. In the title track she writes, “I’m seeing fireworks/they’re so beautiful/tell me why it hurts.” Veirs displays healthy contentment, even when singings of longing. On “I Can See Your Tracks” she sings “Oh I can smell the smoke/ from your fire, babe/but I’ll leave you alone/and sleep in this lonely cave.”
Part of the charm of July Flame is Veirs astonishment at the beauty of the world around her. She exhibits a child-like wonder about fields, night-time skies, rushing clouds, buzzing insects and sprouting buds that might sound forced in another singer. Veirs has a unique ability to present these images without sounding clichéd or pompous. Perhaps it is her straightforward approach to the material. Veirs is not a great singer in technical terms; her range is limited, her voice is thin, but it is pure and true and it matches the unpretentious emotion of her songs.
Not to be overlooked is the contribution of Tucker Martine, currently one of the most sought-after producers in music. His ability to ferret out the tiniest distinctions of an artist, and then magnify those attributes is key to his success. Martine knows Veirs well, they are partnered and expecting their first child, and he knows her strengths and limits. He bolsters her vocals with beautiful harmonies by Jim James and Karl Blau. The Tosca String Quartet appears on 3 tracks; their addition offers evocative shadings to songs about fragile hopes. “Sleeper In the Valley,” a song adapted from an Arthur Rimbaud poem, is so delicately pretty one can almost hear the words transform to vision. Again Tosca Strings appear on “Little Deschutes” a song about protecting the tenuous connection between a couple. The album’s final track “Make Something Good” is a summation of what makes July Flame such a gorgeous and endearing record. Veirs and Blau mix sweet, plain harmonies on a song that presents all the hope of a new couple as they embark on their life together. It’s early in the year but I have to agree with Decemberist frontman, Colin Meloy’s assessment of this album. It’s the best of 2010.