Cover albums are tough to pull off. It isn’t that a band runs the risk of making an album that is terrible. The problem is that cover albums rarely carry the heft to be either fantastic or terrible, and instead are often easily dismissed as hold-over releases until the band gets down to making a new original record. Those that get it right — like Cat Power with The Covers Record — show us not only the influences that go into an artist’s sound, but also the process with which the artist makes their own music.
This is what Vetiver does on Thing of the Past. The collection is strong throughout, full of well-chosen songs that are executed with a charming air of reverence, but also with a mind towards craft. The album goes a long way towards informing fans about the band’s first two records, shedding light on corners in those recordings previously too dark for us to see.
Andy Cabic and company had released two strong albums — Vetiver and To Find Me Gone — before Thing of the Past. And while they may have got their initial recognition more through their friendships with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, it didn’t take long for them to build a name on their own music. Their brand of folk was hardly as “freak” as people would lead you to believe, and given the songs chosen for this covers album, we can see that Cabic is much more concerned with fostering a tradition than he is with quirking it up.
There isn’t a bad number to be found on the album, but the strongest stuff — like opener “Houses” — shows the band’s careful ear for instrumentation guiding these folk songs. They sound stripped down and comfortable, but the songs never feel like they get away from the players. The goofy metaphors of “Hook & Ladder” are played straight, the same way they were in the original, and Cabic’s delivery is heartfelt and bittersweet.
The last four tracks on the album are both the strongest and the best examples of the subtle variations that float throughout these songs. “The Swimming Song”, originally penned by Loudon Wainright III, is maybe the most upbeat track on the record, driven by bright drums and banjo while Cabic sings about being a “self-destructive fool”. It’s followed by the thumping blues of Michael Hurley’s “Blue Driver” and the loose country shuffle of Townes Van Zandt’s “Standin'”. Then the album closes with the moodiest number. They play Bobby Charles’ “I Must Be in a Good Place Now” as a threadbare ballad, winding the record down with a song as comforting as it is lonesome.
As the album goes on, we see Vetiver showing us the different directions folk music can go in. All these songs see to be, in one way or another, self-deprecating and hurt, often focusing on self-destruction, but they all seem to portray it in different ways. Michael Hurley projects it onto the road, while Townes Van Zandt buries it deep within himself and Loudon Wainright III gets lost in reverie. To see all these different permutations of folk is to see how they come together to make Vetiver’s unique sound. One that is as aware of its surroundings as it is of the interior life.
But what might be most surprising about Thing of the Past is that it succeeds in one way where the other Vetiver albums don’t. It is much more inviting than the other albums. Free of the atmosphere that surrounds the other albums, particularly the cold space in To Find Me Gone, these songs are warm and draw the listener in much closer to the players. You can almost feel more of Cabic in these covers than in some moments on the original Vetiver albums. And, in that way, this might have been a good step for his career. Perhaps it was smart to step back and record a bunch of covers, some of which they’ve been playing live for years now. They sound energized on this record, not like they’re just plopping another album into their catalog.
But as much as it shows us Cabic’s alchemy in bringing together a number of different folk traditions into his own sound, it also shows some of the distance built into those tracks. Maybe this will be the jumpstart they need going into their next album. It shows clearly how much they love making music, how fun it is for them, and how deeply they can feel it. And maybe, in the future, making this album will push their own songs from sometimes great to always great. Thing of the Past show how much Cabic and his band know and love about the folk tradition, and that they’ve clearly got the chops to be an integral part of it. And if this is any indication of what’s coming from Vetiver, then they’ve just begun to make their mark in folk music. And that mark could turn out to be a lasting one.