November 16, 2007

Shortcuts—Laura Veirs's Saltbreakers

If you’re dying to pretend the Decemberists show is still happening, then lend a little authenticity to your fantasy and check out Saltbreakers, the latest album from would-be special guest Laura Veirs. Listening to it is kind of like watching your favorite band’s newest opening act—the musicians are good enough to keep your attention and maybe make you check out some of their work, but not quite outstanding enough to steal the show.

Saltbreakers, the fifth studio release for Veirs, certainly has a few standout tracks. When pairing her quiet and somewhat harsh voice with slow, ambient instrumentation, Veirs is in her element. “Wrecking” is perhaps the best example of this, with acoustic guitars highlighting the vulnerability and intimacy that Veirs creates with her second-person narration and ethereal harmonies. The hopeful “Cast A Hook” is equally well executed; its genuine enthusiasm and elation builds as Veirs adds in more and more bold instrumentation and complex harmonies. “Ocean Night Song,” though a bit more experimental, pulls the listener in with a haunting and cryptic tale that might sound esoteric if tackled by anyone other than Veirs.

In fact, barring the one track where Veirs irritatingly collaborates with what sounds like a children’s choir, most of Saltbreakers is quite nice to listen to. You can turn it on, relax, do homework, make dinner—and probably even watch TV, too. To be fair, that last part might be a bit of an exaggeration. But only a bit.

Despite being catchy and enjoyable, many of the songs fail to really make an impression that lasts after the music stops. Tracks like “Nightingale,” “Drink Deep,” and “Black Butterfly” all are decent songs, but they are unremarkable—the ultimate background music. Even when Veirs tries something new to get our attention, as she does with the heavy “Phantom Mountain,” the results are middling at best and light-years behind the innovative and moody up-tempo rock on Year of Meteors, Veirs’s previous release.

If nothing else, Saltbreakers is a great example of why purchase by individual song, a la iTunes, is a fantastic idea. This album is a few stunning songs surrounded by several other underwhelming tracks. Download those and skip the rest. After all, this isn’t a concert, and there is no reason to sit through all the boring parts when you don’t have to.