Graig Markel and Verses on Venus: The Summer Fire EP
Let me take a few moments here to describe the packaging of this EP. It doesn't come in a jewel box, but in a slim card stock folder with a flap on the inside for the CD and a flap containing the liner notes. The notes are printed on a slip of bright red paper, which contrasts beautifully with the clean white of the inside of the folder. The cover of the EP bears an exquisite stamp of a cicada, in a shade of gray just shy of purple. Above it is written the name of the EP and the name of the band, and this is also obviously a stamp because you can see little traces where the ink bleeds into the card stock. I don't know how many copies they made of this EP., but I guarantee that every single one of them had to be stamped by hand-and very carefully, too, so that all the fine veins in the cicada's wing are discernible and unsmeared. All of this makes the EP. desirable as an object alone, regardless of the music.
It strikes me that the cicada is one of summer's most enduring symbols. Its fat, grotesquely armored body knows only the purpose for which it was born -- to reproduce and die -- and it often seems that human lives take on the same bestial simplicity in the summer. School is out and laziness abounds and even those of us who work still spend all of our free time lolling around on inner tubes in warm water or laid out like hotdogs on the burning sands. The cicadas persistent drone is the very sound to represent the sluggishness of mind and spirit that comes with high summer.
Enough already, you say, tell us about the music! (As if there were thousands clamoring for my opinion.) Well, my imaginary friends, one would think with all of this high-concept packaging that the music would also follow a streamlined plan, one designed to evoke the atmosphere described above. But one would be wrong.
I have a hard time finding much of a thread to pull together the five songs on this EP. And, with the exception of Nicholas Markel (who plays bass on two songs), and Graig himself (who sometimes plays everything on a particular track), no two songs have the same lineup. "Daybreak" is a fairly standard indie rock number. Markel's vocals have that sort of Soundgarden-y breathy-but-soaring quality, not surprising given he's been living in Seattle. I don't much care for it personally, but there's no accounting for taste in that regard. "Looking Glass" gives full rein to the Bachman Turner Overdrive impulse, as two guitars (played by John Bosch and John Randolph) intertwine with seventies guitar rock virtuosity and each gets his own lengthy solo. The chorus for this song, however, rides out on a lovely, much softer guitar line, which is a nice twist. "Version 45 Style" goes back to Pacific Northwest flavored modern rock (tastes like salmon!), but with its electronic whines and burbles and atmospheric guitar it certainly has nothing to say to the previous two songs.
"Vertigo" is probably the track around which the "Summer Fire" concept was conceived: "We'll be shaking off the winter for months to come," Markel sings over sparse acoustic accompaniment punctuated by single shakes of tambourine and later, washed with strings. I like that idea-and I guess he did too, enough to put all his energy into packaging this eclectic album as something thematically unified. But buyer beware, these are songs for a variety of moods and seasons, so don't count on it to set the mood for your Labor Day cookout.