A dazzling collection of spun sugar songs: though formulaic, The Vells polish up the nuts and bolts of an inherited legacy that they interpret with ease.
"Throw a rock in Seattle and you'll hit a rock band." So wrote the editors of "The Stranger", the Evergreen City's weekly alternative newspaper and hipster log of choice. The city and its similarly music-laden satellite Olympic are veritable Petri dishes teeming with rock star bacteria, cultivated in a perfectly rain- and beer-soaked environment. The vastness of the music scene is both an asset and a hindrance to the overall quality of the bands that emerge out of the Seattle cocoon to national airwaves and rock venues. With so much in the way of interest, talent, and resources, most aspiring musicians worth their salt have little problems finding inspiration, like-minded band mates, places to play, and crowds to show up. On the other hand, this same accessibility means that there are always plenty of bands that can make records, play shows, and amass a following without actually having much to offer.
That said, one thing that tends to be consistent however about Seattle music is the success of its supergroups: seasoned musicians combine forces, showcasing their talents in a new and inspired way. These bands have a long and rich history in Seattle. Back in the day, this phenomenon produced concoctions like grunge darling Temple of the Dog. More recently, these side-projects appear to have taken on a life of their own. Quasi, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and LA-Seattle combo The Postal Service come to mind.
The Vells are another band that inhabit this category. They comprise members of several successful local acts, including Modest Mouse, Red Stars' Theory, Blessed Light, and Stagger Lee. The band have also employed some legendary Seattle producers to tie the whole business together, working with the estimable Phil Ek for their first, self-titled, EP. Their first full length, Flight From Echo Falls, is produced by Plastiq Phantom's Darrin Wiener, and released on his label, Imputor? The resulting product is a dazzling collection of spun sugar songs that woo listeners with their gleeful brand of pop. Though their formula is not exactly new, The Vells are refreshingly good at polishing up the nuts and bolts of an inherited legacy that they interpret with ease.
It's clear from the start of Flight From Echo Fallswhat The Vells are about. They wear their influences on their sleeves: within the opening bars of "In the Hours of Flowers", The Kinks, T-Rex, David Bowie, and The Shins come shining through. Most of the evidence comes from Tristan Marcum's vocals: his high-pitched trilling has a nasal otherworldliness that could pass for Ray Davies after taking a healthy gulp of helium. Even more anachronistic are his lyrics, thick with alliteration and disjointed psychedelic images; in the chorus he croons, "Down some the lovey laces / 'Round in a devey daze/ Sound out the holy stasis / Of languid lays".
This kind of daft poppiness would be unpalatable in a chintzier setting, but luckily for Marcum the band's arrangements are lush and graceful, complementing the wiles of his voice perfectly. Adam Hewrey's bass is rich and bouncy, providing a cheerful counter to Jeremiah Green's cymbal-heavy drums, which make arrhythmic slashes in the otherwise seamless melodies. The glue that holds the song together is Ryan Craft's guitar, and the keyboards played by newly-added Mary Thinnes. The former thumps a 'road runner' monotone and the latter pounds out major chords rich with reverb. The resulting harmonics aim to please, and please they do, even as the song breaks down over a catchy bridge towards its end.
Similarly arresting results are achieved throughout the record. "Hello Medicina", the ubiquitous tribute to the chemical cure, features smooth Spanish ramblings that glide off the tongues of Marcum and his harmonizers. The lush composition and crystal-clear production of "Larger Than Life" strive towards hypnosis alongside its simple melody. "Time the Deceiver" is similarly coy, with Thinnes' Hammond providing a sweet backdrop as Marcum waxes darkly on about death, aging, and too-early resolve.
Altogether, the record provides some much-needed respite from the bombardment of garage throwbacks to have overstayed their welcome in this period of unapologetic rock recycling. The Vells, by contrast, offer their own brand of recycling -- one that plunders a peppier, and somewhat less well-trodden pop terrain. Though we have, indeed, been here before, there are moments on Flight From Echo Falls at which -- in the words of Foreigner -- "it feels like the first time." Somehow, that's enough.