Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

The Staves and yMusic: The Way Is Read

A folk-pop trio meets a chamber ensemble. The results? Inconclusive.

There really should be an advisory sticker on this album – “Caution. This album contains quantities of head scratching, modern chamber music in addition to those gorgeous harmonies that you’re probably buying it for. You have been warned.” Yep, it’s a collaboration. We all know by bitter experience that they can be hit and miss, to say the least… we all remember Lulu, don’t we? For The Way Is Read, the Staves have teamed up with the New York-based chamber ensemble yMusic and recorded the most middle-class album of 2017. When it’s good, it’s outstanding. When it’s bad it’s… well, bad.

The Staves have an enviable back catalogue of beautifully sung, beautifully written folk-pop. They’re a kind of English version of the Roches, and that is a good thing. yMusic have toured with Jose Gonzales, Bon Iver and collaborated with Ben Folds. On paper, this record should be stellar, but we only see glimpses of greatness. If we were grading this record on production and instrumental or vocal virtuosity, then it would win more awards than anyone could carry, but it takes more than that. If you’re looking for something you could test your new, top-end stereo system, then here you go. If, however, you’re looking for a consistent album comprised of something more than well-meaning, but unconvincing compromises, then you should maybe look elsewhere.

The Way Is Read begins with “Hopeless” – a luscious, 104 seconds of twisting, shifting a capella voices – the kind of super-accurate harmonies that only siblings can achieve. Then, the trouble starts. “Take Me Home” resembles an homage to Philip Glass, with the Staves punctuating the arpeggios with wordless “ahs” and “oohs”. They do a great job of adding texture, but the piece lurches around in so many directions, the listener loses sight of the melody. “Trouble on My Mind” does a little to redress the balance – the voices are supported by an understated arrangement which gives them a gorgeous framework. Are we back on track? Sadly, “Bladed Stance” pushes the “Philip Glass Lite” button again. It’s a thin tune but superbly played, which could also be said of a lot of the material here.

When the two ensembles mesh sympathetically, lovely things happen. “Silent Side” and “All the Times You Prayed” are gorgeous pieces which hint at what this collaboration could have sounded like. The strings curl around the voices and punctuate the melodies with lovely little figures which never throw shade on the tunes. Alas, we then get “Courting Is a Pleasure”, which sounds as difficult to play as it is to listen to.

The Way Is Read was made with the best of intentions, but that’s what the road to hell is paved with if the old proverb is to be believed. In this case, it’s true. Neither party offers their best work here, and the whole project smacks of an uneasy arrangement. A bet that both ensembles stubbornly did not want to lose. It’s too angular to be dinner party muzak and too conventional to avant-garde. If this record had been 50% weirder or 50% folkier, it would have been 100% better. It’s not a bad album, and some of the pieces are stately and beautiful, but once the smell of lost potential reaches your nostrils, it’s hard to focus on anything else.

RATING 6 / 10