Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Album Review: Carbon Glacier

Carbon Glacier, (named after the breathtaking black and white mass atop Mount Rainier) is Veirs’ fourth album, is one great impressionistic mood-sweep.

Her last album, Troubled By The Fire while utterly beguiling, trod a familiar, country-tinged path, too similar to the works of Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris to be considered a great work. At times, Troubled By The Fire attempted to straddle too many genres (one minute bluegrass, one minute country, one minute agit-rock), and was denied of absolute greatness by being a bit scattershot and a bit too familiar. With Carbon Glacier, Veirs showcases an album of opaque, wintered laments that evoke the cold, jagged landscape of the Colorado Rockies.

While an album based on a landscape is nothing new, no other artist has succeeded like Veirs. Where other artists (notably Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska) have used the winter as a metaphor for emotional atrophy and exile, Veirs turns the idea on its head, instead focussing on the possibility of new life amongst the icy terrain. The opening lines are telling, “My wooden vibrating mouth / sing me your lover’s song / come with me and we’ll head up North / Where the rivers run icy and strong.” (Ether Sings) and so Veirs remains here for the duration of the album, using the American wilderness as giant metaphor and exploring nature’s unpredictability and the failings of humanity via gently exquisite songs that are both dark and enlightening.

Rapture is an excellent example of the Veirs’ songwriting range, name-checking Kurt Cobain (“junk coursing through his veins”) and Virginia Woolf (“Death came and hung her coat”). While comparing Monet’s Giverny gardens and Japanese poet Basho’s, “plucking ponds and toads” to, “the tree that writes great poetry / doing itself so well.” Recent single The Cloud Room balances its pop-leanings with a beautiful description of winter evenings, (“Trees fade to white / and boulders just might make an appearance / if the sun shines just right”) immaculately. Elsewhere, Chimney Sweeping Man offers a take on Dylan-esque narrative; the lonely protagonist locked into a life pattern of squandered promise. Veirs succeeds in translating the bleak, isolated immensity of nature into the bleak, isolated vastness of the modern city-sprawl, which ensures the album’s resonance

While Veirs’ voice is responsible for the imagery, much of the stark beauty is due to the credible production work of sometime Modest Mouse/Howe Gelb collaborator Tucker Martine; whose bare and simplistic arrangements still bear enough edge so as not to dull the listener into passivity. As Veirs' voice reaches its angel-sweet peak on the chorus to Rapture, a strange, descending vibraphone emerges, conjuring an air of stargazed self-discovery. Elsewhere, Wind Is Blowing Stars with its simple voice and guitar motif, cupped in a heavenly string arrangement is stunning. Only the queasy feedback of Salvage A Smile breaks the stride of the album. Above a flurry of urgently plucked, overdriven guitar and Veirs’ despondent poetry, Eyvind Kang’s viola creates a wonderful cacophony of human despair and strained dissonance.

While the album is deeply-rooted in feelings of isolation, the closing track, Riptide hints at a route out. Accompanied again by Kang’s weeping viola, she whispers, “And with this phosphorescence map / A sailor’s chart, a mermaid’s hand / something I’ll find.” You can be certain she will.

Carbon Glacier is the sound of a focussed songwriter hitting full stride. Not only does it excel in terms of songcraft and musicality; Veirs manages to deliver dour and disaffected subject matter without ever sounding detached or impenetrable. Carbon Glacier is a cold, beautiful and engaging record that improves with every listen. An absolute masterpiece.

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