[2 December 2009]
In our current climate of winking, self-aware anti-rock stars, sincerity is a tough pitch to sell. Unfortunately for songwriters who actually sing about their own feelings, the stock for musical earnestness has currently bottomed out somewhere between a Freddie Mac loan and the last Nickelback album. It goes without saying then that, for the promising trio of San Franciscans that make up Petracovich, writing an album of folksy piano pop about love and heartbreak was certainly a daring gesture, if not a risky business movie. Fortunately, Petracovich songwriter and lead-signer Jessica Peters is blessed with one knock-out punch of a soprano— she could sing nursery rhymes and make them sound as serious as your life. Thankfully though, Peters is also blessed with a sharp eye for detailed lyricism and the foresight to underpin her vocal theatrics with enough varying musical structures to keep the band’s third album, Crepusculo, interesting throughout.
From banjos to trumpets to chimes to cello, Petracovich use a variety of instrumentation to flesh out their surprisingly cohesive record. The mostly somber affair kicks off on a misleadingly triumphant note with “Heaven Help the Day”, a whimsical romp of a pop song that kisses off an absent father over chimes, a bouncy piano melody, and a rip-roaring guitar solo. However, from there Crepusculo quickly shifts gears, down-shifting into the aching nostalgia that permeates most of the record. Quiet gems “Mockingbird” and “You Are This Perfect” showcase Peter’s soprano with quiet arrangements that, coupled with fragile piano adornments, subvert familiar melodies into haunting lullabies. On “I’ll Return as Waterbird”, Peters demonstrates her knack for arranging intricate melodies with a variety of instrumentation and repetitive vocal chants reminiscent of neo-folkie contemporary Sufjan Stevens.
Fans of 2005’s “We Are Wyoming” will immediately notice the absence of skittering drum machines and reverb-soaked sound-scapes on Crepusculo. Instead, Peters and company have moved to more conventional instrumentation to construct their ethereal folk-pop. The tunes benefit from the added bombast too, striking pleasure nodes quickly and often without sacrificing any of the delicate intimacy that endeared listeners to Petracovich’s past work. Unlike the slow-burning Petracovich of yore, the accompaniment, supplied by Max Dietz on drums and Heather Houseman on cello, now lends immediacy to Peters’ voice, which, on Crepusculo, flutters over more instantly gratifying melodies. And, of course, Peters’ voice still plays the leading role, mingling somewhere in the stratosphere between Aimee Mann and Ingrid Michaelson.
The liner notes dedicate Crepusculo to Peters’ first son Otto Charles, with whom Peters was pregnant during the recording of the album. Otto was born on Aug. 22, 2009 and tragically, passed away only eight days later. His life hangs over Petracovich’s music, coloring even the most joyous notes with a reminder of the fragile nature of life. At its best, Crepusculo reconciles these opposing emotional poles with the redemptive power of melody and Peters’ warbling soprano. At its worst, Crepusculo is still a finely-crafted album of hummable folk-pop.