It’s tough to imagine a worse two-song opening salvo on any record, ever, than that found on the Vespers’ second full-length The Fourth Wall. “Better Now” is apparently sung from the point of view of a little crippled child who has found Jesus and so doesn’t mind being crippled – it’s the kind of drivel that makes you spew your coffee out your nose when you hear it, and sputter something along the lines of “Jesus Christ,“only not in the spirit in which the musicians presumably intended. Memo to band: songs about little crippled children rarely work out well, especially when they are wise little crippled children. Follow-up song “Flower Flower” keeps the sappiness running at a high level, as it concerns, well, a flower, and said flower’s yearning to be plucked and given to someone’s sweetheart, or something. God knows. I checked out sometime around “Flower flower, don’t you worry / Flower flower, there’s no hurry.”
Two songs in, and you’d be forgiven for rifling through your CD collection, looking for something a bit less treacly. (Monster Magnet? Venom? Grace Jones? Anything at all, really.) Devotional music is all well and good, but there is nothing in these songs to suggest any kind of struggle, or anything at stake, the way, for example, Julie Miller’s “All My Tears” or “Orphan Train” suggest so powerfully. Singing sisters Callie and Phoebe Cryar (it’s not apparent who sings what) possess voices that are silky smooth and pretty enough, but these songs simply lack any sort of emotional weight. They sound like children singing about Jesus and flowers, which is pretty much what they are.
Something remarkable happens, though, starting with the fourth song. It’s as if the band undergoes some radical transformation, and suddenly reels off a string of powerful, affecting tunes: “Close My Eyes”, “Got No Friends”, and “Lawdy.” The vocalist doesn’t change, but the voice does, shifting from the yearning swagger of “Close My Eyes” to the urgent, banjo-accompanied wistfulness of “Got No Friends”. The music changes too, moving away from upbeat, happy-happy arrangements to a sparer, darker sound, replete with minor keys and occasional thumping percussion.
“Lawdy” is probably the best song here, and the halfway point of the album. Minimally but effectively accompanied by an array of background sounds – a bit of fiddle, a rain stick, plucked banjo, discreet guitar noodling – the singer’s quavering voice sends up a plea both urgent and tentative. It sounds like a traditional song that’s been kicking around for a hundred years, but it’s not: Phoebe Cryar wrote it.
Not exactly country and not quite bluegrass, the Vespers uses a range of acoustic instruments commonly associated with those genres, or with the looser term “Americana”. Something like New England’s Crooked Still – but much less dark – this outfit explores that fertile ground where rural acoustic musical traditions meet and cross-pollinate. They’re not afraid to throw in the occasional electric guitar solo either, as on “Close My Eyes”, which serves to spice things up nicely.
The back half of the record neither matches the intensity of these three songs, nor does it revert entirely to the insipidness of the opening two. “Grinnin in Your Face” is a rousing bluesy acoustic number, with strong vocals and some nice slide guitar work, while “Daughter” aims for quiet intensity again. It doesn’t entirely fail, but neither does it match the earlier tunes. “Jolly Robber” is another cutesy-pie yawn-fest, but “Winter” rounds out the album on a introspective note, with its piano providing a nice sonic contrast to the rest of the set.
The Vespers are a young band made up of two pairs of siblings – the Cryar sisters on vocals and various instruments (banjo and mandolin among them, judging by the cover photo), while brothers Bruno and Taylor Jones play guitar and bass and stay out of the way. Judging from their performance videos, they’re not afraid to trade instruments, which is admirable; their technical proficiency is undeniable and, at their best, their songwriting skills are formidable as well. Once their lyrical output reaches a maturity level that consistently matches their musicianship, the quartet could well morph into an alt-country juggernaut.