Before Naomi, my only prior acquaintance with the Cave Singers had been their debut LP Invitation Songs (2007), a pleasing slice of rustic fingerpicked folk that aside from a few production touches stood resolutely out of time. So imagine my surprise when I started digging into their new full-length from Jagjaguwar and happened upon an unexpected revelation: these guys have discovered how to rock.
Or, to be more accurate, they have fully reconnected with their rock roots after having started out conjuring as pre-rock an aesthetic as they could. Formed by former Murder City Devils and Pretty Girls Make Graves member Derek Fudesco, the Cave Singers have, record by record, steadily allowed less antique sonic stamps to imprint their music. Now expanded to a four-piece, the Cave Singers are now less a clutch of friends picking banjos on some imaginary Appalachian front porch and more a proper band, with the presence and group interplay to match.
Merely broadening their stylistic range does not guarantee the Cave Singers kudos, oh no. No, what does is the deft ease with which Naomi‘s 12 rather well-executed songs present themselves. Couched in reliable verse-chorus formats, several of these tracks could in a just, fair world be believable radio staples. Often these numbers find the four-piece latching onto a nice hook and then carrying it aloft as they ride out their grooves (a little too long on occasion, it must be said), biding their time until it’s the right moment to deliver indelible refrains that would surely place a smile on U2 frontman Bono’s face.
The Cave Singers’s evolution has not sacrificed the qualities (chief among them singer Pete Quirk’s rural folkie plaintiveness) that made them endearing in the first place. Rather, like any effective artistic development, it builds upon and augments what has come before. The old rolling arpeggios that marked Invitation Songs reappear on the likes of “No Tomorrow” and “Shine”, but the extra bit of support the now more-pronounced rhythm section gives these tunes is welcome (and in the case of the busy tom work heard on “Karen’s Car”, is downright energizing). When the band takes liberally cues from the Creedence Clearwater Revival performance manual on “It’s a Crime”, the roots rock swagger suits it comfortably, making the song’s transition to a thumping, hammer-down outro a believable direction. Yet gentleness remains prized: see the guitar and vocal-focused gem “Evergreens”, where the yearning timbre of Quirk’s voice is as powerful a draw as the catchy melodic framework he’s working from.
The band demonstrates a keen awareness of how much to push and pull in any particular direction in its now firmly established folk/blues/rock axis. “Week to Week”‘s laid-back chiming recalls the verses to labelmate Dinosaur Jr.‘s “Feel the Pain”, though instead of that alt-rock ensemble’s transitions to exuberant choruses, the Cave Singers bring their song down, minimizing the bass and drums as the guitar plays a halting, hooky lower range figure. It’s a wonderful arrangement decision. That fully-realized command of their facilities (as well as the good taste to avoid crassly showing off—with the wrong touch “It’s a Crime” could have ended up being an unconvincing misfire) makes Naomi an understated winner, one that simultaneously completes the group’s process of seamlessly bridging their favorite genres all while never slacking quality-wise from start to conclusion.