PopMatters is on a brief publishing break while we work on launching our new site on Friday.

Photo by Alissa Anderson
cover art


The Errant Charm

(Sub Pop; US: 14 Jun 2011; UK: )

Mellow But Not Soft

One of the dangers of making mellow music is that the result could easily turn into soft rock—you know, that easy listening style where nothing too unpleasant ever seems to happen. San Francisco’s Vetiver makes quiet music. At times, the songs on the band’s fifth full length album come perilously close to sounding like soft rock. But Vetiver usually manages to bring the music forward, using the beat to transport the listener from the ethereal to the real world.

Consider the hazy charm of “Fog Emotions”. On the surface level, one would never know it’s about the heartache of a failed relationship. Singer Andy Cabic gently details his troubles over muted instrumentals. However, the Latin beat propels the action forward. As the relationship changes and fades away, the rhythms get stronger. One gets the sense that the singer becomes more of an individual and a tougher human being, even though he never raises his voice or changes inflection. It’s a subtle phenomenon.

Even when Vetiver does turn it up, such as on the album’s loudest song, “Ride Ride Ride”, the band never turns things up too loud. There’s a sense of motion, but that engine purrs more than roars. The driver always remembers to check his mirrors and read the signs. It’s a safe trip. But one of the advantages of making mellow music is that subtle touches can offer great pleasures. Vetiver invokes the strategy to great effect throughout the album. For example, the more than two-minute instrumental coda that closes the song “It’s Beyond Me” includes many odd sounds that appear momentarily and dissipate, and make one wonder is that a boat horn or the sound of a train in the distance. It may be both or neither. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the added touches that add interest and deepen the music. Something is always going on. Something is always changing.

Vetiver blends acoustic and electric instruments together so that one never knows where one sound begins and when another joins in or takes over. This is enhanced by Cabic and long time band co-producer Thom Monahan’s magic in the studio. They employ various effects to brighten, lengthen, and highlight different instruments—including the timbre of the voice—yet always focusing on the total sound. The 10 tracks on the album offer a consistent vibe from beginning to end, even though the cuts may be about completely different topics.

Mostly, the songs are about love—particularly past relationships. This is young love, and while the narrator of such romantic treats as “Hard to Break” and “Worse for Wear” seems to have a more melancholic than passionate attitude towards his partner, his sighs reveal that the pleasures and pains were deeply felt. He may have a heart of glass, but as the title to another song reveals, it is “Soft Glass”. Just do not compare this music to soft rock. It may be smooth, but a closer examination of what is going on reveals profound variations. The album’s charm lies in its errant ways.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

Related Articles
30 Mar 2015
A lack of substance, coupled with an occasionally overwhelming “lite-ness” that veers dangerously close to easy-listening, makes Complete Strangers a less-than-solid effort.
24 Feb 2009
Tight Knit mines the tension between the desire for close community and Cabic's deep-in-the-bones need to keep moving, and the hazy world these songs inhabit is a compelling one.
5 Jun 2008
This does what a covers album should do. It pays homage to a band's influences while also illuminating the band's own creative process.
18 Jun 2006
The first nine cuts on the latest Vetiver album are great folk pop to die for. Then things get a little off-kilter
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2015 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.