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.
With Complete Strangers, Vetiver, essentially now a solo vehicle for singer/songwriter Andy Cabic, complete the transition from being one of the prime movers associated with the unfortunately named “freak folk” movement of the early ‘00s to the Americana-flecked, contemporary indie-pop act that their 2009 Sub Pop debut, Tight Knit, suggested they were heading towards. Gone entirely are the dusty folk textures from the Devendra Banhart-era Vetiver, as Cabic has introduced some even newer elements to his sound here on Complete Strangers, with a few songs containing lite-Latin and lite-funk touches that actually suit current-day Vetiver’s electric sound quite well. But the keyword in regards to Strangers is neither latin nor funk, but “lite”, as the album is so breezy and weightless that the whole affair is often in danger of dissipating right before the listeners ears. It doesn’t appear that this is entirely unintentional on Cabic’s part though, at times it seems Cabic is deliberately channeling soft-rock (or “yacht rock”, as it’s referred to now) acts that dominated AM radio in the early to mid ‘70s like Bread, CSN, America, and Carole King. While the pillow-soft textures onComplete Strangers’ lends itself well to the more substantial, hook-driven tracks, it often serves only to further dull the more uneventful moments, which unfortunately aren’t few enough on this record.
The album does open strong with the slow-burner “Stranger Still” that recalls both modern day dream-poppers the Radio Dept. and classic ‘90s shoegazers Mojave 3 and Spiritualized as it slowly and steadily builds to a windswept climax with tasteful saxophone riffs and percolating synths. Unlike the rest of Complete Strangers’ tracks, “Stranger Still” features a bit of an extended running time, clocking in at just about seven minutes, which allows the tune to properly build from its hushed intro to its heady finale. Third track and lead single “Current Carry” is another highlight, with a bouncy latin rhythm and sun-kissed pedal steel gliding between delightfully funky choruses where Cabic showcases his newfound sense of groove with strutting bass riffs and soft stabs of electric piano.
But the following tracks “Confiding” and “Backwards Slowly” are where Complete Strangers’ lack of depth becomes problematic, as the two tracks have trouble digging themselves out of atmospheric redundancy amid layers of breathy vocals and reverb-drenched guitars that only serve to dilute the track’s already dull melodies. “Loose Ends” is the album's red herring and best track, eschewing the lite-rock and shoegaze for a supercharged piece of jangly ‘60s sunshine pop that sounds close enough to a dead ringer for the Turtles' 1965 single “Can I Get To Know You Better”, without being overly derivative. The way Cabic deftly handles this more up-tempo number makes one think that perhaps more time should have been spent on further developing that sound, instead of the drowsy one that makes up too much of Complete Strangers.
Aside from the gentle bossa nova-inflected charmer “Time Flies”, the rest of Strangers’ second half falls victim to the weaker aspects that drag down much of the record, with “Shadows Lane” and “Edgar” no more than sleepy, atmospheric pieces with melodies that don’t develop, “Edgar” being particularly guilty of taking a boring riff and driving it into the ground. But it’s more than the lack of hooks that make these songs underwhelming; it’s the general sense of the unremarkable these weaker tracks possess that is their undoing. The album’s quiet closing number “Last Hurrah”, is indicative of this problem, as Cabic’s delivers a fine, forlorn vocal but it can’t make up for the fact that there is just too much atmosphere and not enough substance.
Peppered among the underdeveloped tunes are some good tracks though, tracks that Vetiver fans and even some newcomers are going to enjoy. Still, the 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.