Music

The Vespers: The Fourth Wall

Those first two songs are awful, but bear with it. Things get better


The Vespers

The Fourth Wall

Label: Black Suit
US Release Date: 2012-04-03
UK Release Date: 2012-04-03
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image