Music

Vandaveer: Grace & Speed

Vandaveer's Mark Charles Heidinger can tell a pitch-black story in a way that makes it sound more like unfortunate happenstance than world-moving tragedy.


Vandaveer

Grace & Speed

Label: Gypsy Eyes
US Release Date: 2007-03-20
UK Release Date: 2007-03-20
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Mark Charles Heidinger had a hand in the production of his debut solo full length as Vandaveer, a pleasant little album called Grace & Speed. This probably isn't a surprise, given that when an artist separates from the band with which he made his name (in this case the Washington, DC-based jangle-power-pop outfit the Apparitions), that artist tends to want full control over the resulting product. Still, the choices he made as part-producer (along with brother-in-arms Duane Lundy) may well have shaped the direction of his CD as much as the ten unassuming songs he wrote and performed for it. Grace & Speed is an album as much about the sound of Heidinger's vision of folk music as it is the fact that he can write songs without his bandmates.

Most striking is the treatment given his vocals, apparent from the first moments of first track "However Many Takes It Takes". Most of Heidinger's career has been behind a mask of fuzzed instruments and treated vocals, those little knob adjustments and button pushes that pass for "edge" on an upbeat guitar-pop album. After a brief, simple acoustic introduction, though, "However Many Takes It Takes" betrays vocals that sound as though Heidinger is singing them right into your ear, utterly untreated and completely dry of reverb and delay, right at the front of the mix. It's a production choice that lends an air of vulnerability even as Heidinger sings confidently and well-on-pitch in that Dylan-but-smoother way that this generation of folk singers has co-opted as its own of late.

The difference between Vandaveer and some of those other folk-leaning singer-songwriters, however, is that the Vandaveer name carries with it far more of Dylan's spirit than other contributors to the genre. Heidinger didn't just co-opt Dylan's sound and use it to sing about girls and how much stuff sucks; he's telling stories, some of which betray a cautious optimism, but most of which find dark places to hide, with very little in the way of happy endings. "Beautiful voice, you're such a pretty thing / Marianne, what good is a corpse if it cannot sing?", Heidinger sings in "Marianne, You've Done it Now...", one of the only tracks to feature percussion (in the form of a drum machine). His tale of Marianne, a girl who "sold her soul for the silver screen", is not a new one, but not once does it sound clichéd or trite. This is a singer who can tell a pitch-black story in a way that makes it sound more like unfortunate happenstance than world-moving tragedy, as an observer rather than an interpreter. "The Streets is Full of Creeps" continues this style, centering on an unhinged sort who uses a gun to solve his many problems, as does "Crooked Mast", in which Heidinger makes his points via some lovely imagery and an upbeat-yet-sad set of melodies.

So can Heidinger keep it up over the course of an entire album? Not just yet, it seems. The latter half of the disc (save the fantastic upbeat singalong of a closing track called "Roman Candle") is stuffed with comparatively inconsequential forays into folk vignette-craft; while songs like "Different Cities", "2nd Best", and "Parasites & Ghosts" are pleasant, their narratives don't invite analysis or even all that much in the way of close reading -- they're extensions of a sound rather than the well-formed entities of the first half of the album.

Still, when a song like "Roman Candle" ends an album, it's hard to feign displeasure for too long; bringing back the percussion for one more go after a pile of songs without it was the perfect way to snap the listener back to attention after a half-hour of listening. It's also a transition of sorts, a way for Vandaveer's listeners to ease back into the style for which Heidinger is better known and probably more comfortable with, as it's closer to his work with the Apparitions than anything else on Grace & Speed. Better to leave 'em with a smile than with a whimper, it seems. More than anything, its inclusion and placement is one more good decision on an album full of them, an album where the songcraft isn't even all that far from catching up to the decision-making.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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