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Music: Laura Veirs * * *

Laura Veirs might well be nerdy but the folksy mysticism of her latest album brings a very welcome touch of summer, says Eamon Carr

Those who rate Carbon Glacier as one of the standout albums of the past decade will be pleased to learn that Laura Veirs, now based in Portland, has reverted to a more minimalist sound for her latest collection. Colin Meloy, of The Decemberists, has already declared July Flame "the best album of 2010". He's biased, seeing as how Veirs duetted so brilliantly with him on Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then) on his band's album, The Crane Wife.

But who's to say he's wrong? Veirs' work drips an understated haunting beauty that, over the course of seven albums, has seldom faltered. The world may crave big, brash and loud but Veirs offers the perfect antidote -- a repertoire that invokes a folksy mysticism.

Sure, she's nerdy. Her methodology is a triumph of precision and diligence. Songs are constructed with clinical exactitude. Her producer, Tucker Martine (now also her partner and father of the baby she's expecting in April), has worked with her on six albums, always displaying a keen ear for an apt textural flourish and harmonic embellishment.

It's little wonder that her work impresses John Hutchinson, the insightful director of the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College. Hutchinson hosted a Veirs performance in the gallery a few years back.

The gallery space, which currently highlights a retrospective of the remarkable work of American (folk) artist James Castle, suited Veirs' graceful meditations.

Veirs' songs offer a unique sense of place and identity-quest, something her work has in common with Castle's extraordinary creations. The late artist, who was born deaf, remained reclusive on his family's farm in Idaho and created his own iconography using soot and spit to make an ink for his intense drawings.

Having studied geology and Mandarin Chinese, Veirs didn't begin writing songs until she found herself bored and lonely while working on a geological expedition in China.

Located on the Pacific Northwest, many of her songs have dealt with the ocean. Now she turns her attention to summer on land. The title track song, prompted by a stall selling July flame peaches in a local farmers' market, suggested this thematic direction.

"I'd been in a songwriting slump at the time," says Veirs. "Writing that song pushed me over the plateau and into a new place where I was surprising myself again. I wrote this album from a searching, soulful place."

As she sings the title track, her concern is obvious. These songs deal with the eternal question of why things fade and die. "I'm seeing fireworks. They're so beautiful, tell me why it hurts. Ashes of a secret heart falling in my lemonade..."

The album opens with Veirs' distinctive acoustic guitar picking on I Can See Your Tracks. What at first might seem whimsical reveals a deeper core. "I can hear the snakes creeping cross the scene. I'm quaking in my boots..."

A surprise addition to her palette is the rich baritone of Jim James of My Morning Jacket on three songs. "Laura's like the queen bee and my ear is her hive," he declares.

With it's swooping strings and delicate guitar work, When You Give Your Heart sounds as old as the hills and as fresh as a daisy. As with most of Veirs' work, it marks a place when indie rock consciousness meets the weird old folk. It's not all acoustic. A ramshackle band propel Summer Is Champion ("Honey wax melted down..."). Gentle electronics underpin the sweeping string arrangement on the choppy Wide-eyed, Legless.

The album's great surprise is an upbeat hymn called Carol Kaye, a tribute to the unsung west coast session-bass-player who recorded with Phil Spector, The Beach Boys and Frank Zappa among countless others. "It would be so cool to be like Carol Kaye," croons Veirs.

Kaye is probably among those who think Laura Veirs is also cool. HHHII