An album full of hope and loneliness, with a thoughtful approach to life and love’s and their quirky ironies.
It’s finally here, and it does not disappoint. When I heard last year that k.d. lang, Neko Case, and Laura Viers were releasing an album together, I naturally shrieked at my computer screen in excitement. Lang and Case are largely responsible for me (more or less) surviving my twenties intact. Their songs provided a compass by which I could navigate being sensitive and assertive, hopeful yet bitter. As with all collaborative projects between women, so much has been written about the harmonies, which are, yes, wonderful; but in my opinion, these have been over-extolled compared with the lyrical and textural content of the album.
Aptly, it was Lang who initiated the case/lang/viers musical project. k.d. lang defies tidy categorizations, but she was groundbreaking as the first commercially successful alt-country woman artist, embracing classic country’s outsider philosophy and punk’s defiant stance. She started paving the way for her collaborators on the album back in the 80s, bringing a subversive direction back to the genre, which by then was dominated by the Nashville sound and ostentatious, proto-bro country artists like Kenny Loggins. Lang, with her famously velvety voice, has always pushed musical boundaries, beginning with rockabilly and venturing into Bacharach-style pop over the course of her career. She’s also a queer icon, presenting as butch or femme depending on her musical project, toying with gender presentation as part of her performance. If there has ever been another artist blurring both genres and gender so elegantly and beautifully I’ve yet to see it, and her influence on the independent country and folk musical genres has been substantial.
This album is in some ways a supergroup effort, three compatible and very distinctive talents coming together to collaborate on songwriting and arrangements. No single song is owned by any individual member, but Laura Viers should be recognized as the only member to have a songwriting credit on every track. While every song is a collaboration, each one seems to fall, stylistically, with one creative mother of the three. “Honey and Smoke”, a scintillating song about jealousy denial and wanting, is reminiscent of some of lang’s classic catalogue. “Song for Judee”, a folksy and sad tribute to Judee Sill, clearly has Viers’ musical fingerprints on it, and “Delirium” is reminiscent of lot of Case’s most beloved material, like “Margaret vs. Pauline”.
The album opens with the first lines of “Atomic Number”, declaring “I’m not the freckled man / I’m not the fair haired girl / I’m not the pail of milk for you to spoil”, each vocalist taking turns with the lines, and harmonizing over the chorus. Then, Case wonders “Why are the wholesome things the ones we make obscene?” The strings, cello in particular, drive the ambience of mellow uneasiness, with open scales and fingerpicked guitar; it’s a perfect opening to this album, which explores some of life’s uncomfortable experiences with elegance and humor.
In “Honey and Smoke”, lang’s seductive voice tries to convince her lover (or herself) that she feels no threat by the swarms of paramours heaping attention onto her object of affection: “I watch / as they dance with you/ I watch as they sing to you / I watch/ as they pour honey in your ear / But dear / can’t you see / there’s nothing for you here”. The song hearkens back to lang’s classic “Miss Chatelaine“, but this song has the perspective of an older, wiser paramour, watching her lover as the life of the party. Is she truly so confident that she knows they will leave together? Or doth she protest too much? Are they truly together or is this individual an object of the singer’s desire and fantasy? The song plays with and delights in its torturous ambiguity. As beautiful as the song is on the album, performed live, lang’s voice stuns and amazes; she performs vocal acrobatics with ease, transitioning from one note to another, across octaves as smoothly or as sharply as she wants. She’s had her share of success, but far less than she deserves given her skill as a vocalist and performer.
“Song for Judee” is the first track on the album that is distinctly in Viers’ grassy voice, and is about Judee Sill, a folk/country musician who died alone in the world at 35, having battled addiction her entire life – her own, as well as her parents’. She had a tragically abusive childhood, but grew up to find some commercial success before fatally falling victim to her addictions. She was a part of the debaucherous 70s folk scene in Laurel Canyon, and created beautifully weird songs, her music reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s, but darker and trippier. It would be easy for Viers’ tribute to her to fall into the realm of tragedy, but the song starts out with a clear declaration of admiration and describes her constant struggle to find a more grounded, equanimitous state – “You wrote ‘The Kiss’ and it is beautiful / I can listen again and again / you never really got a break / from the car wrecks and the pain / you loved the sons of the pioneers and the Hollywood cowboy stars / you were just trying to put a hand to where we are”. The song is a sweetly wry ballad of empathy to a fallen, nearly forgotten talent, well deserving of tribute. You can watch Sills’s emotional performance of her song “The Kiss” here. The song is artful and direct in the way it addresses tremendous tragedy and the genius of the singer’s hero simultaneously, without getting sentimental or judgemental.
“Delerium”’s arrangement brings to mind Neko Case’s classic catalogue, particularly Deep Red Bells; the intro would make an ideal soundtrack to a drive through abandoned landscapes at twilight. This is the lonely emotional grit that Neko Case does so beautifully; this is a song about the blurring of fantasy and reality. “I kiss you in the morning / but only in my mind’s eye / the sun it rolls along your sleeping moon”. It’s unclear whether or not the lover is there, unclear if she’s feeling a real connection or yearning for one, or not she has someone in her bed. “In your dreams do you know/ I’m the only thing between you/And this heartbreak feeling?” The song is anything but morose; it’s a frustration driven exploration of uncertainty and, perhaps, a longing to escape loneliness and that heartbreak feeling.
The live show, at the beautiful Mountain Winery, was truly one of the best I’ve ever attended. The venue itself, no longer a winery, is at the top at the top of a hill in the wooded, wealthy town of Saratoga, about an hour south of San Francisco. My front/center were a result of obsessive fan behavior on my part – the instant tickets went on sale, my hand was on the purchase button. For talent of this caliber, this should have gotten me only mediocre seats, but the music business is one with no taste or justice, and this show didn’t even sell out. A more just world would have Justin Bieber driving the bus for this tour.
Their set included most of their album, as well as one track by each of the individual artists. They sounded so at ease, so musically charged and attuned to one another, and at once fresh and rehearsed. lang – with whom I am newly obsessed – was the most charismatic of the performers, and is an artist who shines most brightly on a stage. She exudes confidence and a playful puckishness, which was most evidently on display when she was running up and down the aisles, trying to coax audience members out of their seats to dance. She later joked, “I’ve already offered you my body, what else do you want me to do to get you out of your seats?” (one classy gentleman heckled, “Rape me”; to her credit, lang didn’t acknowledge him). Halfway through the set, she picked up a banjo, she said “This is a total chick magnet. You ladies will feel a strange … pulling … in your groin area. Men, you’ll feel something too, but it’ll be different.” Her presence, her playfulness, and her banter brought droll charm to a magical show.
Viers and Case were both on the quieter side, slightly less engaged with the audience. Between songs, one of them said “they told us we need more banter,” and Viers suggested a game of “thorn and rose” where each of them said first a bad thing, then a good one, that happened to them. It was charming, and slightly stilted, and lang complained that it was kind of a downer, to the bemusement of the audience. Case tried taking her microphone out to walk around on stage, with lang’s help, and decided it didn’t work, because she’s “like a hose”, preferring her head to stay in one place while her body moves around. From an awkward girl’s perspective, it was charming and inspirational to see a trio of middle aged women performing so majestically and confidently without having the gift of small talk. Some omissions are enhancements; so too the lack of costumes or formality.
It’s no small choice for women performers to be so uncontrived in their clothing choices when going on tour. Even the riot grrl bands seemed to carefully select their distressed or punk attire. Not so here – Neko Case wore yoga pants with a rip in the seam, and Vans with dog faces on them. k.d. lang kicked off her Crocs at the beginning of the show, and ran around the stage and venue barefoot; Viers had on a baseball cap and an old T-shirt. When women are so subject to scrutiny about their fashion choices and expected to conform to a glamorous ideal, it was validating refreshing to see a demonstration of so much talent without a thought given to conforming to any stylistic standard. Case commented on her frizzy hair, which was a glorious, unstyled halo, and my frizzy curls got a little bigger, and felt a little better about themselves.
The fruits of the case/lang/viers project are majestic. It’s not too late to see them in concert, if you’re inclined to travel a bit, but it’s very easy to get a hold of the album. Find an uncomfortable space inside yourself, let it percolate. Connect with the beautiful unease of life’s trials and wantings. Have a whiskey or a joint, take a few moments, and explore the beauty of imperfect satisfactions and vulnerabilities in the most beautiful way possible. Our uneasiness and occasional discomfort is inevitable, but it is glorious, and now there is a shimmering soundtrack for the beauty of these misplaced spaces.