April 19, 2007

Review: No Alternative: The Sure Thing

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3 out of 5 Stars
My iTunes imported Laura Veirs’ latest album, Saltbreakers under the genre “Alternative.” Nice try, iTunes, but I’d say that’s a bit of a stretch. Within her liner notes, Veirs thanks both “Sufjan” and “Colin and the rest of the Decemberists.” Counting these artists among Veirs’ friends, one can divine a mostly-accurate stereotype about this album’s songs: the lyrics will be colored with a certain melancholy regarding the human condition, while the melody will be upbeat and catchy enough to lift the songs out of their existential gloom. And you can be certain the album will contain lofty, almost literary metaphors — in this case, maritime in theme, given the album’s title.
Yet unlike the Decemberists or the more bombastic Stevens, Veirs often opts for quieter arrangements — with the exception of the album’s anomaly: a skittish, electronic-leaning track, “Don’t Lose Yourself.” Both programmed drums and a rolling tom-tom keep an insistent backbeat to the unsurprising refrain: “Don’t lose yourself/ Don’t let yourself be lost.”
In truth, however, “Don’t Lose Yourself” is the only track that can be considered at all “experimental” for Veirs — and even so, using the word “experimental” may be too strong. Indeed, Saltbreakers is not an alternative to, or departure from, her earlier work; it merely plays like a poppier revision of her last album, but with the addition of a few neat handclap patterns and the sporadic use of synthesizers. The syncopated guitar pattern on “Pink Light” sounds eerily reminiscent of “Where Gravity Is Dead,” a song found on her previous album, Year of Meteors. Likewise, “Black Butterfly,” a song on her newest album, has nearly the same chord progression as “Galaxies,” a song found on Meteors.
There are even more thematic similarities between Saltbreakers and her previous work. Like Meteors, Veir’s simple voice and guitar work meld with intricate metaphors, which often meditate on the predatory and ambivalent roles that nature plays in her life. For one instance, in the first single “Cast a Hook,” she sings of the challenge ahead: “Staring straight in the face, looming tempest waves/ Otherwise, I’ll wither and die here.” Yet regardless of all of the similarities between these albums, it’s clear that she sticks to this tried-and-true equation because it works.
Saltbreakers is an enjoyable album, albeit at times repetitive in terms of her choice of metaphor and melodic structure. It also feels a bit disjointed and sluggish, as the buoyant opening tracks do not carry through to the end. Instead, the second half of the album resorts to the simple folk-guitar and vocal structure Veirs fans are accustomed to. Though this construction sounded fresh on Meteors, it comes across as slightly hackneyed this time around. Nevertheless, if you find yourself looking for a more sedate, female iteration of The Crane Wife or Come On Feel the Illinoise!, then give Saltbreakers a spin. Though you may not hear anything earth shattering or life changing, this album is worth a listen.