Ben + Vesper's songs are maddeningly hard to categorize, but is that such a bad thing? Not when their tunes on their debut album have so much to offer.
Of all the different genre names I’ve seen thrust Ben + Vesper’s way regarding their full-length debut All This Could Kill You, the most puzzling has been folk, at least initially. Folk music at its most basic interpretation implies participation between musician and audience, sometimes to the point where there is little or no distinction. Ben + Vesper’s songs, however, are difficult to take part in; their melodies swerve frequently into different keys or non-traditional chords, their song structures rarely producing anything resembling a catchy chorus. But a few nights ago at a B + V show, the titular (married) couple played the time-honored card of teaching the audience a few select bars of their next song to sing along to. Not many of us did, and those who did most likely failed in their attempt to anticipate the right places to come in, never mind the notes. But witnessing the exchange (proposed, at least) demonstrated that, on some level, the folk music tag isn’t far off the mark. All This Could Kill You might be a challenge to sing with, but it’s nevertheless engaging, reflecting the same desire to communicate and share, but in its own invariably quirky way.
“Carnaval”, for example, is built around a rippling, finger-picked guitar pattern, with Ben and Vesper Stamper harmonizing throughout on cryptic lines like “Without the oxen the manger is clean / Don’t you despise them / Their strength is my feed”. Each piece of the puzzle is lovely and purposeful, but the complete picture is hard to grasp at first. It’s a natural instinct with quiet, delicate music to want to immediately feel comfortable, but it takes time to settle into the duo’s melodic sensibilities. Only after several listens do patterns start to reveal themselves, allowing the listener that special luxury of anticipating the next note, word, or sequence. The exception is “Vow Takers”, probably the most outwardly accessible song on the record, with its memorable chorus of “If these old walls could talk”, and nifty lyrics like, “Why talk on your phone’s walkie-talk when it’s a phone?”.
That question, though inherently humorous, is delivered deadpan by Ben’s sonorous baritone (recalling the Zincs’ Jim Elkington) and Vesper’s complementary coo. Despite the knowing jibe, it’s a serious question, encapsulating some of the more prominent themes on the album, particularly how to weather life’s major events and ever-accelerating culture and still feel genuinely connected and human. “The Floridian” asks “What is work, what is rest? / Are they not one in the same?” and later concludes “Our life is so mechanical”. It’s particularly clear on this song that Ben + Vesper work from the vocal melody up, rather than pulling from a series of prescribed chords. Free from the seductive constraints of I-IV-V songwriting, the arrangements (devised by B + V, Ben’s brother Joshua, Chris Weisman, and some dude named Sufjan Stevens) chase after the vocal twists and turns rather than buoy them. Again, this takes a little patience to get used to, but it reinforces the frustration in lines like “… the wider world it suffers the heavy hand of the multi-tasker’s union / You can do just one thing / They size you and laugh”. Why not go against the grain, make one’s self and others work a little harder if the rewards could be greater?
The rollicking opener “Door to Door” is full of surprises, a bizarro-world anthem with prominent wood-block percussion, a few dark descending melodies, and jangling, invigorating strumming. “An Honest Bluff” takes it a step further on a tale of domestic struggle, with bracing wit and directness: “Do a favor and hide away my jewelry before the little ones find out you maxed out the card". These are the details and moments that are tough to extract at first, but worth digging into. Characters, stories, and events express modern joy and anxiety, calm and confusion in relevant and distinct ways. Too nuanced and complex for most one-word descriptors other than “music”, the Stampers’ tunes nonetheless have much to offer. All this could kill you, but it could also make you stronger.