Forged with a temperate sense of circumspection that only sometimes rises above the humdrum, July Flame finds Laura Veirs joining forces with Jim James, a partnership that partially frees her from the constricting mold of her own music. It’s a rare thing for male backing vocals to be added by a female singer for their sheer beauty, even more so but James’s voice, which has become increasingly ethereal as he’s grown more comfortable with it, plays here as the perfect counterpoint. Veirs’s own instrument—slight and reedy, and more prone to a tedious uniformity of style—is never as exciting on its own. This suggestion of greater range pushes the singer out of the limited space she generally occupies. It proves her capable of higher levels of vocal expression, proved by the soaring peaks of some of these tracks.
Unfortunately, James only appears on a few of these songs. Without James, Veirs’s confidence is either lacking or her ambition unpiqued, and the solo songs skew toward unspectacular, with workaday guitar ditties and mildly clever lyrical sub-theatrics—the kinds of things that have impaired her appeal and kept her albums consistently plain. It’s not that Veirs’s work is uninteresting. Yet its slightness is too oblique and provides too little dividend to make these songs worth digging into. Saltbreakers, from 2007, was lightly consistent, but like the weaker parts of this album, its style was too developed, its sound too indistinguishable.
The songs here with James help externalize Veirs’s songwriting ability, formerly presented on too small of a canvas to be appreciated, adding just enough garlanding of wispy beauty to elevate them. Opener “I Can See Your Tracks” is the best example of this, stocked with roofless melodies, a clear sense of free space, striving for a richer sound and easily attaining it. By contrast, something like “Summer Is the Champion,” which aims for smaller-scale melodic aplomb, remains entirely forgettable. With James, Veirs has proven that she’s capable of breaking out of this pattern. Now she just needs to learn to do it on her own.