“Supergroup” is a flawed term, implying a Justice League of musicians banding together to use their powers for good. Most newly minted collaborations shy away from its grandiose implications (and perhaps you’d be right to suspect the motives of any who didn’t). In reality, these projects often start from much smaller stakes: a chance to escape your natural creative instincts, and ultimately better understand them.
The debut album by k.d. lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs has been compared to Trio, the 1987 effort from Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, and the parallel makes sense in a way—there are few precedents for female solo artists banding together, and Americana is the black sheep on country’s family tree. But the titular Trio were at the height of their commercial powers in the late 1980s. Although titans in their respective fields, case/lang/veirs aren’t really capitalizing on anything here. lang met Case and Veirs after she moved to Portland, and thought they’d be perfect for the punky girl group she wanted to form. She emailed them, simply stating, “I think we should make a record.” Within half an hour, they had both replied saying yes.
Rather than bring finished songs to the studio, they honored the spirit of collaboration, with Veirs and lang taking the bulk of the work, and Case, who lives primarily in Vermont, joining them when she could. These are three of the strongest voices in their field—lang the full-voiced seductress, Case the hurricane, and Veirs the wry storyteller—so things could easily have become overcrowded. Instead, they give each other space to take the lead on group-authored material, which wound up veering from lang’s original punk Ronettes template in favor of dusky songs about devotion, heartache, and awe at the simple power of human connection and creativity—the kind that underpins a project like this. “I Want to Be Here” is one of a few songs written by all three musicians, and finds them praising a misfit artist friend who “lost a front tooth, can’t keep a job,” Veirs sings, reassuring them, “but the things you make are so beautiful / They bring me joy / Don’t you ever stop.” Singing as a meditative campfire choir, they avow that “the hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything.”
case/lang/veirs makes a few subtle political statements about the human cost of being an artist. “Our life savings aren’t enough / Have to love you hard and make it up, make it up,” Case sings on realist heartbreaker “Supermoon,” where strings and the odd rumble of thunder lend forlorn drama to a heavily thumbed acoustic guitar. Veirs’ “Song for Judee” gives dignity to the late singer-songwriter Judee Sill, elucidating the harsh realities of her life with empathy and warmth. They dismiss preconceptions about youth determining the value of women artists on “Atomic Number,” dividing the opening lines into a three-part sunrise. “I’m not the freckled maid / I’m not the fair-haired girl / I’m not a pail of milk for you to spoil,” they declare, as pattering percussion pushes their elegy for innocence into a golden chorus. “Why are the wholesome things the ones we make obscene?” Case asks later on.