Laura Veirs’s ninth album, Warp & Weft, makes good on its title, a reference to the over/under thread structure of traditional loom weaving. The album combines her previous output’s folk-pop touch with rootsy rock n’ roll, all of it cushioned by orchestral flourishes and driven by powerful lyrics about motherhood, war, and the relationship between love and fear. Veirs, who studied geology and Mandarin in college, has long mined the strangeness of the natural world in her lyrics, combining keen observation with a fabulist sensibility. On Warp & Weft, recorded while she was pregnant with her second child, she leaves most of her usual bucolia behind to explore the beauty and menace of humanity, etching narratives about real-life figures such as jazz harpist Alice Coltrane and folk visionary Howard Finster. That most of the characters in her songs actually lived makes them no less strange or mythical to Veirs, who offers up often surreal narrative turns, like the mother in “Dorothy of the Island” who “fell into a well inside her head.”
Featuring guest performances by Neko Case, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and multiple members of fellow Portland folk-rockers the Decemberists, Warp & Weft is Veirs’s most expansive effort yet, with obvious musical and thematic ties to experimental Americana: “Say Darlin Say” and “That Alice” feature guitar solos that wouldn’t sound amiss on a Wilco album, and Case’s brassy country pipes mesh well with the homey swing of “Sun Songs.” But Veirs also writes in the eclectic and complex orchestration style of artists such as Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens. Her instrumental palette, supplemented by wunderkind producer Tucker Martine’s synths and sound effects, is reliably idiosyncratic, with a distinctly multicultural texture, heard in the pan-Asian percussion and bells of “Ikaria” and the microtonal choir vocals of “Ghosts of Louisville.” The musical threads of Americana and Asian orchestration intertwine on the gorgeous “Sadako Folding Cranes,” a ballad about Hiroshima bomb victim Sadako Sasaki that juxtaposes the banality of a waltz-time folk strum with studied discord and quietly furious lyrics: “She is blown out of the window/She is two years old/This is our cry, this is our prayer.”
Although occasionally bleak, the vibrant arrangements on Warp & Weft tend to bolster the modest claim expressed in “Ten Bridges” that “Tear after tear will fall from your boy/But dancing brings joy.” Album closer “White Cherry,” an odd, beautiful hybrid of a song, joins jazzy drums and a stuttering saxophone with a cascading harp and burbling electronic feedback; its minimalistic lyrics begin and end with the mantra, “Abundant life, that’s this life.” It’s the perfect note on which to end the album, a resonant meditation on the tenuous joys of survival.