High-profile collaborations always run the risk of becoming a motley collection of half-finished side projects, or, at their worst, nothing more than gimmicky vehicles for self-important artists to tout their outsized egos. It should not be a surprise, then, that when genre-blurring icon k.d. lang, powerhouse Neko Case, and geologist-turned-bard Laura Veirs announced that they would be forming their own band and collaborating on an album, eyebrows were raised. Although the trio have over 30 albums between them, there was no guarantee the joint effort would bear fruit.
It’s no stretch to say that the trio exceeds expectations. Their eponymous debut album, case/lang/veirs (), draws the best of their previous work into a project worthy of their reputations as masters of modern folk.
As though we needed reminding, case/lang/veirs make it clear from the start that they are the three same fiercely independent solo artists. However distinct their individual approaches may be, the trio finds a middle ground in a style that draws at various times on folk rock, alt-country and Americana. “Atomic Number” introduces the project with a declaration from each of the three — lang is not “the freckled maid,” Veirs won’t be typecast as “the fair-haired girl,” and Case would like it to be known that she is “not a pail of milk for you to spoil.” The idea behind the song is straightforward enough: like an atom, each member cleaves strongly to her own identity as an artist. Having made their declarations, their voices then meld together as the song swells and builds, not a single voice rising to prominence above the others. This immediate assertion of individuality followed by harmonizing sets the tone for the rest of the album, which sees lang, Case and Veirs take turns at the mike, with all three providing backing vocals at one point or another. Their personalities come through strongly, yet no one upstages the others at any point. Their chemistry is natural and unforced — the furthest thing from gimmicky.
Their explorations are at once rich and understated, the album evoking an impressive array of moods and settings, exploring them with a poetic exactness. On “Honey and Smoke,” lang pleads with a would-be lover to see through the shallow seductions of other suitors and recognize the substance of her own affection instead. She carries this sense of vulnerability and longing through to “Blue Fires” and “Why Do We Fight,” examples of lang at her best. Meanwhile, Laura Veirs lends a counterweight to lang, veering into a brighter, somewhat country sound on “Silver Lake.” Case holds her own throughout, her voice consistently powerful and assured. She is strongest on “Delirium,” her vocals paired with soaring, otherworldly instrumentals on what is arguably the album’s high point.
Throughout case/lang/veirs conveys a profound sense of intimacy. Many of the songs feel deeply personal, whether they are lang’s confessions of unrequited love or Veirs’ “Song for Judee,” a moving tribute to a musician whose budding career was overshadowed by addiction and crime. The melodies themselves are delicate and ethereal, deliberately constructed to draw a listener in. Even on more uptempo tracks, an atmospheric, almost haunting tone pervades this album. “Supermoon” and “Georgia Stars” are powerful meditations on the natural world, whose urgent strings and bass evoke the feeling of danger and excitement that comes with being alone under the night sky. In a similar vein, “Down I-5” enumerates the minute details of a lonely stretch of interstate. What might otherwise be an unremarkable, lonely drive instead becomes a moving reflection on monolithic, impersonal billboards and the endless night beyond them. Whatever the subject material, a listener can’t help feeling that they are being shown something raw and authentic.
In the process of collaboration, some things are inevitably sacrificed. As strong as they may be, k.d. lang’s contributions in particular are somewhat muted. Since lang is the most well-known of the three it could be that this was a deliberate choice to keep attention on Veirs and Case, and on the fact that the album was a group effort above all else.
While these three folk rock veterans may have compromised on some details, putting egos aside has generally paid off remarkably well. While lang alone gives the group plenty of star power to coast on, case/lang/veirs ultimately refuses to do so. The trio shows us that compromise need not necessarily be a bad thing. In this case it has resulted in a strong and deeply affecting debut.
case/lang/veirs is available on Spotify and iTunes. The band is currently touring the U.S. and Canada and will be performing at the Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday, July 27. Visit thelincolndc.com.
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