Listen to this track by three-cornered supergroup with the accountancy firm-style name, case/lang/veirs. It’s “Atomic Number”, the first single from the upcoming self-titled album by three magnificantly talented singers and songwriters Neko Case, k.d lang, and Laura Veirs. The album is due out on June 17 from Anti-Records.
The formation of this band came initially from Lang as she sought to challenge herself within a band format. She contacted both Neko Case and Laura Veirs, both of whom reflexively said “yes!” at the prospect of working with her. Wouldn’t you? Well, maybe you wouldn’t given the calibre of talent that Lang represents by herself. She’s done duets with Roy Orbison and Tony Bennett, and held her own and then some. But, Neko Case is also a titan in the vocal department too, not to mention her capacity as a songwriter both as a solo artist and with The New Pornographers. Laura Veirs is the lesser known of the three, arguably. But, she’s been able to have a very maneuverable career, following her muse down various avenues just the same with results that make her one of the best in her field.
The question with a collaborative project like this is always the same, and that is this. Will the music survive the egos involved? After all, the word “supergroup” has been used, and rightly so. Luckily, it seems like this issue wasn’t exactly lost on the three principles. And the proof is in the pudding. So, what kind of dish are we looking at, exactly?
One thing this concoction isn’t is a rock oriented punk rock girl group style sound, which is what was envisioned when the three artists initially got together. Part of the reason for knowing this was a process that seemed to suggest itself to them when they finally came together to write. This led the way into a chamber folk-pop space with a sort of partially sunny, partially cloudy atmosphere. All they had to do was follow it.
The first thing to notice here is the voices, which is of surprise to absolutely no one. All three are powerfully gifted in that department, although in different ways. And really, this is what we’ve come for, right? And yet, the pull to do layer upon layer of three part singing is resisted. It feels like this is a song written by three people who are still looking to be surprised by what comes out of them when plunked down as they are here in a new artistic context, wanting to present that sense of surprise to listeners instead of reaching for the obvious. There is a bold generosity that can be found in an approach like that, because it’s harder to achieve. This approach ends up giving us what we’re looking for, and yet undercutting our expectations at the same time.
I think that’s another issue with supergroups that make them challenging prospects for artists who are used to calling the shots on their own. We as their fans want to hear the individual musical signatures of everyone involved. But, we want to hear how each one of them is challenged by the presence of the others, too. It’s a delicate balance.
Here on this song, they sound like the mythical three sisters of fate singing together, with Case’s voice in the middle, flanked by Lang and Veirs on either side, not getting in each other’s way, and not undone by any overwrought vocal arrangements. This is a subtle play that comes out of remembering that the song should always lead, and that the voices involved should always buoy it up, not the other way around. No one is fighting for the microphone here, not when it’s been decided that it’s what the song itself demands that is the guiding star by which the music is created and presented. For artists of this calibre, the call to make a great record is stronger than the one to be in the spotlight. And I think that’s what we’ve got on our hands here.
Case/Lang/Veirs are going on tour. You can find out if your local music venue is on the list very simply by navigating directly to caselangveirs.com. From there, you can also hear yet another cut from the upcoming album, called “Best Kept Secret”.
And for more about how these three songwriting mavens got together to begin with, what they make of all of this “supergroup” talk anyway, and more about how they approached the business of making a record together, take a read of this interview from lennyletter.com.