Laura Veirs @ Mercury Lounge, 5/15/06
Johanna Kunin @ Parkside Lounge, 5/17/06
Last Monday at Mercury, crouching behind her merchandise counter, Laura Veirs scribbled something in her diary before standing up to sell me some CDs. My rule of thumb: if I hit a show for someone on my iPod whose record I don’t actually own, I’ll buy it at the show, a better deal for the artist anyway. I’ve had Veirs’s Year of Meteors on there since early last fall when it was released, and it’s been one of my favorite CDs since, so it was time for me to cough up my $15. (To be fair to myself, I did buy it early on, but to give to a friend as a birthday present.)
Veirs stood short, Pippi Longstocking braids, a blue and red horizontally striped shirt with an El Marko skull and crossbones penned across the chest. I wanted to know if the big box of Karl Blau’s Kelp! Monthly CDs included #21, a split featuring another Seattle singer-songwriter, Johanna Kunin. She shuffled through them for a while, but gave up. Maybe when Karl was done with his own set, he could find one. Or maybe Johanna would have some at her own show a couple nights later. I bought #18 instead, “Beer and Chai.” She started to sign over a copy of Meteors to my daughters when someone else approached to greet her. “Oh, hey, Sufjan,” she said, not quite looking up.
Last week was the week of the sexy librarians from Seattle. (What is it about bookish kids and indie rock? I’m not sure, but the fact that both these artists remind me of librarians probably has something to do with the early, library-bound chapters of my own little unwritten Bildungsroman.) I have no idea if either Laura Veirs or Johanna Kunin (KOO-nyin) has ever worked in a library, but Veirs was a geology major in college, if that earns her nerd cred, and Kunin’s childhood piano lessons shine through both her live sets and her debut self-release, Clouds Electric, which drops Edvard Grieg’s “The Butterfly” seamlessly in between a couple of her own compositions. The two of them, Veirs leading the way, have begun to clear a little space in the Northwest scene for their particular brand of lo-fi, spaced-out folk. The sound they sometimes share seems all their own — something less outre than the elfish female freak-folkers (Joanna Newsom, Hanne Hukkelberg, Josephine Foster) and more feminine than Feist.
The Feist comparison seemed hard to resist at first, especially when Veirs took the stage Monday with her band, The Tortured Souls. She plays a strong lead guitar, her signature style a thumb-picked bassline on several songs. Blau backs on guitar and bass, throwing in some of his spooky mic tricks, the sort of DIY effects that tie all these guys to the Microphones/Mt. Eerie set. Tucker Martine, the West Coast Jim O’Rourke who produced both Veirs’s and Kunin’s albums, played percussion, and another fellow whose name slipped by me took the keyboards, which also carried the bass line at times. Like Feist, Veirs and her band have fun recording loops and creating carefully structured soundscapes from which the songs emerge. One of the show’s best moments was the live rendition of the Return from Witch Mountain synth sounds on “Galaxies,” everyone’s favorite song from Meteors. (Watch videos of their studio noodling here.)
But Veirs’s stage presence isn’t as aggressive as Feist’s. It’s more coy, for one thing, as she pivots and sways at the waist, waving the guitar neck back and forth, singing more about pigeons and metaphorical tattoos than about little girls who grow up in taverns, drinking ale and raising general hell. Feist threatens to kick your ass. Veirs might just throw down her axe and skip rope instead. Her music is spacier yet more sincere, little like the highly polished, slightly ironic high-disco balladry Feist delivers. If Feist were American, she’d be from New Jersey, a point she proved earlier this year in her outstanding set at Webster Hall. Veirs, by contrast, is all Portland-Seattle-Anacortes corridor, sweetness and light with a chance of rain. It wasn’t just the lumberjacks scattered through the audience that set the geographical mood. I swear I saw an honest-to-God sensitive male ponytail.
The Return of the ’90s was something I thought more than once during both sets. It’s an unsettling thought. In the early ’90s I just about derailed my music listening in a head-on collision with the Lillith Fair types. Hanging out with feminist student groups, for a couple semesters I found myself purchasing more Tori Amos and Indigo Girls than Pixies and early Pavement, until some good friends staged an intervention. (Rachel Berkowitz will argue that you can have both, but I still wonder.) Listening to Kunin at Parkside Lounge on Wednesday, I leaned over to ask my concert companion, “What is it exactly that separates her from Sarah McLaughlin?”
Something does set her apart. Kunin’s lyrics aren’t just darker, they’re a little more intense without getting bogged down in the personal or narrowly topical. Fans of feminist folkrock might very well find themselves mesmerized by Kunin’s songs, but like Veirs she’ll refused to be so ghettoized. Above all, what saves Kunin from sliding downhill toward Enya is the same Seattle DIY vibe you get from Veirs, Blau, or Phil Elvrum. She plays ancient keyboards, uses multiple mics for freaky effects, fiddles around with her own electronic noises, and begins her songs with extended overlapping vocal loops. If she has a predecessor it’s Anderson rather than Amos.
In contrast to Veirs, Kunin played a solo show, and the Parkside Lounge seemed the perfect space for her set. The dive bar’s little back room, with round-top tables, a couple barstools, and a long bench along the side wall, has a run-down cabaret feel, heightened by the table service: pitchers of beer and bar food delivered by a waitress who calls you Sugar, Sweetheart, and Darlin’. Behind the performer hangs a shimmering wall of red metallic streamers; with the lights down, it looks like something from The Gong Show. Behind Kunin, who’s breathtakingly gorgeous, it sparkled like a sea of rubies. She should pack one of those around with her.
I bought a copy of Clouds Electric from her after the show. It’s beautifully produced and beautifully packaged and well worth your effort to seek it out. (She did have copies of Kelp! #21, too, but by that point my CD budget was spent.) I told her I’d first heard her only a couple weeks earlier on Doug Schulkind’s show. Her song “Phantom” had stopped me short, made me put away whatever I was working on and toggle to the accuplaylist. Over a piano line that sounds like a fucked-up version of “Where Do I Begin (Theme from Love Story),” she lays down haunting lines, every pause in her phrasing offering a twist on the previous moment’s meaning: “I could almost laugh / All your buckets of tears / And all your clouds electric / They shatter every thought into fragments / And turn every feeling into sand / All but the spirit of what is now / Lost.” Captivated, I ran a web search, discovering — without much surprise — her close ties to Veirs, Blau, Martine (whom Schulkind rightly considers a genius, he told me over email), the violinist Eyvind Kang, and the others. I searched for Kunin’s tour dates and was gratified that she’d be in town so soon, only a few nights after I already planned to see Veirs. New York served as a trade-off spot for the two tours, in fact. Kunin had been traveling in support of Blau, who now crossed over and hooked up with Veirs’s train. It’s a shame the two stellar shows couldn’t have been combined, giving us a more complete view of what looks, from the outside, like a fully fueled collective enterprise, but that just may have been too much sexy librarian vibe for any one venue to handle.