Those looking for smart, savvy singer/songwriter music could do worse than find the three records Laura Veirs made from 2004 to 2007 (Carbon Glacier, Year of Meteors, and Saltbreakers). On them, she married the simplicity of solid melody with the complexity of layered instrumentation and a peculiar, intelligent lyrical bent to yield a couple hours of elegant, fun listening. I must admit that the news Veirs was close to releasing a kindie record made me as giddy as my editor Jeff Giles (y’all) is when eating a plateful of Batter Blaster double-chocolate pancakes. That the album in question, Tumble Bee (which drops tomorrow) is worthy of such glee is not surprising.
What is surprising is the fact that Tumble Bee is a Laura Veirs record without a single Laura Veirs lyric on it—’tis a collection of old (some would say timeless) kid-centric folk songs—but which is undeniably Veirsian (some would say Veirsesque) in every other fashion. Credit must go to both Veirs’ throat (cuz, you know, that’s where the sound comes from) and also to hubby/producer Tucker Martine, who surrounds Veirs with the perfect combination of alt-pop soundscape and old-timey rattle to gently walk these aged ditties into the Aughts.
Take, for example, “Little Lap Dog Lullabye,” which opens the album—processed drums slow dance with a plucked banjo, as a simple piano line keeps trying to cut in. All the while, not one but two Laura Veirses harmonize over this gentle tug of modernity and antiquity. The performance belies the song’s purpose—I can’t imagine anyone sleeping through anything so lovely.
Another would-be sleeper, “Prairie Lullabye,” follows, with a gorgeous, almost mournful melody and soft waltzy guitar strum, and Veirs’ voice moving things along with a calm, almost austere beauty. Even a yodeled refrain sounds soft and just a little sexy when coming from her mouth. Equally striking is “All the Pretty Little Horses,” whose double-tracked vocal and sad violin evoke a snoozy warmth that welcomes you to sink down into its embrace.
It ain’t all just lullabies, though. “Jump Down Spin Around” moves at a breakneck pace, yet still fits in a stomping, stimulating swirl of group harmonies, accompanied only by a brushed snare. And I dare you—nay, triple-dog dare you—to keep up with the tongue-twisting precision of “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” (a variation of “Frog Went A-Courting”). Might be best to just whistle along.
Head Decemberist Colin Meloy duets with the lovely Mizz Veirs on the two-step “Soldier’s Joy,” goosed along by fiddle and Jew’s harp; it’s at once familiar and new, a fresh take on something you just know you’ve heard before. “Why Oh Why” attempts to find definitive answers for some of life’s most searching questions (“Why does a cow drink water? … Because the cow gets thirsty, just like you or me”—hadn’t really thought of it that way before), and it might occur to you—possibly for the first time since beginning the record—that you’re listening to a album made ostensibly for kids, and not just a delightfully fun new Laura Veirs record.
You don’t need to be a folk music aficionado to appreciate Tumble Bee. If your knowledge of old folk songs is limited to Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions records, you’ll be okay. If you’ve never listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, or if your copy has enough dust on it that its box appears gray instead of red (like mine, I must confess), fear not. If Woody Guthrie’s voice gives you the creeps, or if you hear the title “Wabash Cannonball” and think “sexual position” or “venereal disease,” it’s all right. Folk music played and sung this well is accessible to all, regardless of previous exposure or, like the very best kindie music, the age of the listener.
Here’s hoping Veirs and Martine follow it up with more, somewhere down the line.
Check out the aforementioned Jeff Giles’ interview with the aforementioned Laura Veirs, over at our sister site, Dadnabbit.