[15 September 2010]
It’s tough to put a finger on exactly what I find off-putting about Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, but there’s definitely something that makes them difficult to like. Maybe sorting through their second album Where the Messengers Meet will help to figure it out. Opening song “At Night” begins with singer/guitarist Benjamin Verdoes crooning “The fire only burns in your eyes at night / When the moths take flight / And they dance with the porchlight”. This simple vocal and guitar figure is quickly joined by strings, bass, and drums, but the accompaniment drops in and out throughout the song to let Verdoes take center stage. It’s a herky-jerky song that puts the emphasis squarely on Verdoes’s vocals, which sound strained throughout the whole song, regardless of whether he’s shouting or just singing, and is actually made a little weirder by the addition of multi-instrumentalist Traci Eggleston-Verdoes on soft background vocal harmonies. It’s an odd beginning for the album.
Next up, “Leaving Trails” is more of a traditional indie-rock song. It has a driving, though slightly off-kilter, drumbeat that fits in nicely with Verdoes’s guitar riffs. The bassline that comes to prominence partway through the song adds a nice low end that is really missing at the beginning. “The Roof” is a slowly churning track, full of organ and intense guitar lines that descend and ascend like the roof of a house. It’s clear from the songs on this album that Benjamin Verdoes is an accomplished arranger. No two songs sound the same, or even very similar. Even when he repeats a technique he’s careful to use it in a different context. The mid-album pop song “Not to Know” mirrors “At Night”‘s back-and-forth structure, albeit in a more pleasant-sounding, less confrontational way. There’s a wealth of musical texture to these songs as well, with layers of interesting instruments fitting in underneath Ben’s singing and guitar-playing.
When Verdoes’s arrangements come together with strong songwriting, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band comes up with winning tracks. The first of these is “Hurrah”, a track that bops along on a locked-in rhythm section’s quarter-note groove and a great guitar riff. When the entire band shifts into a different, pounding unison figure, it’s highly effective. The second big winner on the album is “Messengers”, where the band plays essentially the same mid-tempo melody on guitar, bass, and organ throughout the song under Verdoes’ emotional singing. As the song gets more complex, it never loses the original melody.
But these are aberrations for Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. While the idea of an esoteric, wide-ranging sonic palette is great, it doesn’t work so well if it isn’t underpinned with good writing. And this is where the band often falls short. Verdoes is a strong guitar player who favors long, angular riffs over short hooks. His lyrics are interesting, full of unusual words like “assuage”, “akimbo”, and “interlocuter”. But his voice almost always sounds like he is singing at the top of his vocal range, giving it a strained, strangled quality. The band ends up with a lot of interesting-sounding songs that have almost nothing to catch your ear. So I guess that’s my problem with Where the Messengers Meet. It’s got a lot of good musical ideas, but very few of those ideas seem to come to fruition. There’s potential here for Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, but until Benjamin Verdoes puts in some work on both his singing and songwriting, they probably won’t reach it.