case/lang/veirs showcases the talents of three powerhouses.
Legends collaborating on an album is no novelty. Everyone from Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett (and Lady Gaga) to Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris has done it. But despite our high hopes for such pairings, we never expect them to be true collaborations. Someone is bound to steal the show. One will undoubtedly overshadow the other. But that is not the case with case/lang/veirs, a total combination of efforts from Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs. The three play off of each other effortlessly to produce 13 tracks that fit sublimely into all three of their oeuvres. With the trio sharing writing, vocal and arranging duties, case/lang/veirs showcases the talents of three powerhouses with 15+ years under their belts and the heights they’re able to achieve together.
Although case/lang/veirs as a whole is a seamless collaborative work, it’s easy to see who spearheaded each song. Starting with orchestral opener “Atomic Number,” the elemental lyrics and quirky wordplay are vintage Veirs, but the actual song as it plays out is all glorious three-part harmonies – that is, when the trio aren’t trading lines in the intoning verses. It’s a perfect example of total cooperation, with no individual overshadowing the others. Now, case/lang/veirs doesn’t come as a total surprise. Case and lang, after all, had guest appearances on Veirs’ fantastic 2013 solo album Warp & Weft. Turns out, if you want to collaborate with fantastic musicians (and you’re k.d. lang), all you have to do is send an email. And, with that knowledge, it’s only natural to praise lang for her foresight, her ability to recognize the potential in a dream collaboration between herself, Case and Veirs.
Vocally, Case and Veirs aren’t too far apart; lang, on the other hand, enhances the proceedings with her rich, proto-jazzy voice. And lang really gets the proper “solo” showcases on this album, carrying “Honey and Smoke” “Blue Fires” and “Why Do We Fight?” Those tracks also serve to temper the bouncier “Best Kept Secret” and “Delirium.” You expect to have to overlook a somewhat (understandable) disjointed feel in a collaborative effort; three artists means three individual styles. And, while there are definite indications of that, case/lang/veirs touches on country, indie pop and rock but never lacks an overriding cohesive female folk sound.
There are a number of deceptively simple folk ballads on display here. “Behind the Armory” and “I Want to Be Here” are perhaps the best examples. The former is Case at her understated best, musing on the contradictions of being vulnerable, slow to trust and opening oneself up to love. Accompanying such honest emotions is a sonorous guitar, it’s plaintive finger-plucking keeping a measured pace even as Case’s voice begins to shudder with the line “Still I want you to love me.” “I Want to Be Here” is clearly a Veirs contribution but features collective vocals from the entire trio. The bare plucked guitar here is paired with finger-light keys that imbue the track’s simple desire for closeness with equal parts naivety, whimsy and sober passion. Both songs are under three minutes, and much like the rest of the album, they condense so much emotional weight into that limited runtime.
The highlights of case/lang/veirs, however, aren’t the excellent stripped down ballads but the tracks where the trio pour everything into the arrangements. Veirs’ ode to the unsung folk singer Judee Sills, “Song for Judee,” accomplishes its goal of portraying an insightful artist gone too soon in its lyrics but doubles down with its layering of slow strumming, country electric guitar flourishes, shuffling percussion and shimmering strings. Case’s “Supermoon” manages a similarly complex yet understated arrangement. Again based around a chugging acoustic guitar line, it has deft cello additions for the most elemental dirge on the album (“Nature isn’t magic/ It’s just a mystery to us“). The huskier “Delirium” marks a phenomenal break in the pattern with its grittier electric guitar and ’60s-inspired organ line.
Though it was never in doubt, case/lang/veirs is most certainly a country album, but it successfully shirks all easy classification. The Veirs-led “Georgia Stars” is the best indication of the trio’s musical reach. It’s a ballad to Georgia, so put a check by country. But the rumbling electric guitar riff, tambourine-fueled beat and girl-group harmonies on the chorus put case/lang/veirs in a category of their own. If the album is a one-off, it may be the single best collaborative album country-folk has ever seen. But if the reaction to the album is as vocal as it deserves to be, a second effort from the trio would be nothing if not highly anticipated.