Tag Archives: KD Lang

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

caselangveirs
Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.

I’m Down to My Last Cigarette – The Jayhawks

Let’s hear it for those quietly impressive, hard-working sidemen and women. Every band needs one or two. Standing behind Jayhawks singer-songwriters Marc Olson and Gary Louris for most of the 1990s was the unfortunately named Karen Grotberg, with her catseye glasses and slightly bouffant hair, looking like a small-town librarian who hadn’t quite made it out of the eighties (in my head her speaking voice is like Marge Gunderson’s but perhaps I’m just playing with stereotypes now). On the cover of her first album with the group (Tomorrow the Green Grass), she’s pushed off to the side, sitting on her own branch of the tree, looking up rather than at the camera. She was a great country pianist, enlivening even the most pedestrian moments of their occasionally lumpy career, while singing fine harmonies too. When she left the band after the not-country-at-all Sound of Lies album from 1997, the group lost something key to its identity, for sure.

On their cover of the Harlan Howard/Billy Walker chestnut I’m Down to My Last Cigarette (recorded far less frequently than one might expect for a song that sounds ready-made to be a standard, but revived in the late eighties by KD Lang), Grotberg gets a rare lead vocal and has a ball with it. The track sounds like it might have been recorded live in the studio, although this audio-verite feeling is undercut by the decision to give her voice a Sun Records echo. But it’s still a great performance, fun and spontaneous-sounding, down to Grotberg having to cue in Louris for his solo.

The song appeared as a B-side to their 1995 cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s Bad Time, on which Grotberg was elbowed aside in favour of lungs-for-hire Sharleen Spiteri, odd-jobbing as a session singer around LA during Texas’s mid-nineties hiatus. Perhaps Grotberg was given this one by way of an apology. She ain’t Patsy Cline, but on this evidence (and that of a even more impressive recent live recording on YouTube) she’s a better singer than the nasal Olson and hoarse Louris, who on the evidence of the 2011 reunion album Mockingbird Time still haven’t learned to sing close harmony without lapsing into doubling each other’s notes. They still do this one at live shows, Karen getting her well-earned turn in the spotlight.

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Karen Grotberg. © 2009, Steve Cohen