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.
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.