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In other hands, Laura Veirs’ nature worship might seem twee. The imagery on Saltbreakers, her current album, is alive with cedar trees, nightingales, “black butterflies” and flying fish. It was a similar story on Carbon Glacier and Year of Meteors, her previous two albums. They earned her critical acclaim and a discerning fanbase in the UK and Europe, in spite of being largely ignored in her native US. But there is a mineral edge to her veneration of flora and fauna, a sensible-shoes empiricism, that offsets any whimsy – fitting, really, in a geology graduate who is among the most rewarding songwriters around.
Saltbreakers, named after her band, also has a nautical theme, as the bespectacled alt-folkie from Portland, Oregon, falls for the “pirate” of “Ocean Night Song”. Watery flux and submerged feelings rising to the surface are familiar Veirs motifs. Tonight, though, her spiritual plumb-line is “Riding into the sun/On a raft made for one”, from “Where Gravity Is Dead”, as she sails entirely under her own steam, save for an electro-acoustic guitar and a looping effects pedal. This is what mid-1990s MTV would have called Laura Veirs: Unplugged.
Mistakenly, I had expected Saltbreakers the group as well, but Veirs’ solo act was delightfully plaintive, intricately thought-through and full of between-song charm. She spoke first to say that she had driven down from the other end of the country by herself and was “a little freaked out”. Her nerves, under the assembly-room cornices of Bush Hall, one of London’s nicest venues, only enhanced her status as coolest square in the class. Her Suzanne Vega-ish singing can seem slightly stern – in a straight-A student sort of way – but here, especially on the self-disclosing “Nightingale” and the passionately revealing “Magnetized”, it had a guileless vulnerability.
The effects pedal was put to excellent use on “Pink Light”, which became delicately contrapuntual, and “Cast a Hook in Me”, where siren vocals seemed to echo in a sea
cave. The drip-splash of micro-beats on “Fires Snakes” gave the ending an emphatic undercurrent. When, in the encore, Veirs sang of tearing off “swimming suits and old notions”, who didn’t dream of a bracing dip?