Joel Thibodeau, the musician who performs as Death Vessel, has been out and about performing support for a number of prominent indie artists over the past few years. It’s likely if you were in the audience for any of these concerts you’d remember the guy. Finger-picking his acoustic guitar, Thibodeau famously stumps categorization – man or woman? It took us, pre-Books in NYC, at least half his set to come down on a side, and his effeminate, ungrounded compositions seemed then unnecessarily resistant to being pinned down. In short – it seemed all waffle, neither genuinely felt or inventively recreated. But the artist’s changed a bunch in a few years – and somewhat surprisingly, his new album is full of varied emotion and considerable depth.
Maybe because of this, Death Vessel’s popularity seems to be on the rise, and his Sub Pop debut’s as good an argument as any in support. Thibodeau’s previous album, the 2005 LP Stay Close was not heard as widely, and its scope is much more restricted. In contrast, Nothing is Precious Enough for Us casually moves from hushed finger-picked balladry to romantic washes of distorted guitar and back to jazz-infused piano/saxophone Americana. Most of the time, the atmosphere’s an only-occasionally-disrupted calm, the sort of folk music that hides a traditional bluegrass shuffle under familiar hipster ennui: “If nothing is precious enough for us / Then we are not perfectly numb.”
A pair of great songs open the record. If the rest of the album can’t quite live up to their quality, it’s not that much of a let-down. Just listen to the start again. “Block My Eye” trades up from pretty washed-out acoustic ballad to genuinely affecting through evocative lyrics. The line “genuflecting with the middlebrow” is unusual enough to catch the listener’s ear, and Thibodeau effectively keeps us hooked with an easy-going, allusive style. “Jitterkadie”, which follows, takes a relatively staid folk structure and injects an aching, unhinged feeling that’s difficult to pin down but beautiful to listen to.
It’s probably still going to be in the context of Thibodeau’s infamous soprano vocals that you’ll be piqued to listen to Death Vessel. That has been called a gimmick, but though occasionally the voice is the most interesting thing in a Death Vessel song , it’s somewhat beside the point as criticism. Because when you listen to Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, within a few minutes you couldn’t care less whether it’s a guy or a girl. Thibodeau’s songs, even when they have minimal impact, float by with an unhinged, genderless quality that really suits his twisted Americana sensibility.
And that’s ultimately what’s most interesting about Death Vessel. Thibodeau carefully undercuts folk’s traditional subjects while treading familiar musical territory (though his music’s well constructed and pretty, it’s hardly revolutionary songwriting). But when, on “Bruno’s Torso”, he describes violence and celebration in Bedford Stuyvesant, it’s far from traditional. In fact, the subversion is something more than the gender-confusion and singing about gay bashing; it shows us the normative ironings-over of traditional music.
In one of the episodes of Flight of the Conchords, after Bret has quit the band, there’s a scene where Murray and Jemaine are auditioning for a replacement (they’re about to settle on someone who can’t play guitar, but at least looks like Bret when he returns). If you look closely, there’s Thibodeau standing forlornly in the corner of the small office, auditioning with the rest of the bunch. Jokes aside, after Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, he shouldn’t need to be auditioning much. He’s not going to shoot to massive popularity, but the fading-out instrumental track that closes the album hardly asks for that. But his odd and ungrounded folk music has a welcome place in the canon of reinterpretations and reiterations of America’s traditional music.