Laura Veirs has always been a master of dreamlike imagery and magical, natural soundscapes. Over the years she has found ways to whittle this talent into near-perfection. It doesn’t hurt that her husband, Tucker Martine, is one of the most talented producers in modern roots music. He wields his palette here yet again, and the result is a positively dreamy collection of songs.
On The Lookout, which dropped in April, Veirs toggles between acoustic guitars and electronic enhancements, backed by a crack band of tasteful, less-is-more players, including special guests like Sufjan Stevens. You barely notice their presence on “Heavy Petals,” until the keyboard provides a ladder out of the verse, into the chorus, and then the woodwinds dance effortlessly into the fore.
The album’s opening track, “Margaret Sands,” is a simple old-style folk song with just enough sonic fog around its corners to feel like the ocean and wind that propels the lyrics forward. It feels like a lost track from her 2007 release Saltbreakers, though the sea and water are ongoing themes across Veirs’ work.
Water reappears here on “Mountains of the Moon” and “Seven Falls,” albeit landlocked water, in the form of icy lakes, “cold mountain water,” and snow. The latter has an old-school Neko Case vibe to it – perhaps an inspired result from Veirs’ 2016 collaboration with Case and kd lang. “How can a child of the sun be so cold,” she sings, against ample reverb and backing vocals. A steady snare and twangy pedal steel play against the dreamy guitar and keyboard effects.
Few people capture the soundscapes of the natural world as ably as Laura Veirs, and nature looms large on The Lookout, with tunes like “The Meadow” and “The Canyon.” The latter has one of the album’s most remarkable instrumental breaks, with sounds piled atop one another like so many layers of rock before a quick, fleeting noise appears like a California condor calling in the distance, giving way to the simplicity of Veirs’ fingerpicked acoustic guitar. She sings another verse with just the acoustic, before the electric guitar whips us away from the lyrics (“blowing through the canyon”). And we’re off on the wings of guitar distortion, Veirs’ foggy voice in the distance singing simply “nah nah nah.” It’s a stunning construction of sonic landscape, one of Veirs’ fiercest gifts.
These arrangements are stunning, but Veirs and Martine know when to back off and give the listener a break, and there are a handful of grounding movements on the disc as well. The title track is merely okay, as is “Lightning Rod,” though both have a place in the overall narrative of the disc.
As much as music can provide a chance to unplug and focus on the exceptional beauty and lessons of the natural world, The Lookout takes us there, offering some much needed perspective, and impeccable guitar work to boot.
Listen to The Lookout: