2008 / Music

Review: Vetiver Continues To Honor Acoustic Inspirations With Covers Album

Freak-Folk Fixtures Perfect Pursuit Of Consummate Sunday Morning Record

It’s an eccentric musician who consciously chooses to turn his or her back on being the master of the rock ‘n’ roll party and strive to create the ultimate Sunday morning record.

Photo: Gnomonsong/FatCat Records

Photo: Gnomonsong/FatCat Records

So much of the rock spirit involves rebellion and hell-raising — essentially making a bigger and badder racket — that we must look on with curiosity those who aren’t joining in on the good times and insist on pursuing their own contemplative course. Their works begs many to ask: Who is quietly revolting against the rebellion?

During its two-disc career, San Francisco band Vetiver has sought to soothe all our hangovers by capturing easy-going, pastoral impressions in their songs. To achieve this, the loosely-aligned, four-member collective and its soft-voiced leader Andy Cabic builds out from the gentle nuances inherent in acoustic guitar music and tack on sympathetic embellishments gleaned from country-rock, folk and indie-rock to fill out the laconic picture.

With another record of originals promised in 2009, Vetiver has just released “A Thing Of The Past” as a bit of a stop-gap meant to continue the seduction for those inquisitive souls who are just beginning to appreciate this understated yet magnificent group.

The idea that Vetiver still hasn’t attracted the buzz that typically forms a halo around most underground sensations owes as much to the group’s tendency to sublimate their own best interests to a musical mentor as to the group being unjustly lumped into a misunderstood musical crowd that they run with.

The band has a close association with the Devendra Banhart, the svengali of the so-called “freak folk” scene on the West Coast. Cabic is one of Banhart’s main songwriting cronies and has been a guitar-playing steady in the bearded one’s various backing outfits. However, stylistically, the two are polar opposites. Banhart’s songs are unpredictable, psychedelia-damaged acoustic guitar scrawls. The music absorbs Latin and hippie-era influences and spews them out through Banhart’s wild-eyed, quiver-voiced persona. Vetiver’s albums are undiluted chill-out music. The songs are smooth, structured and meditative. They draw on the strengths of the ensemble and clearly owe a large debt to the ’70s singer-songwriter tradition.

That Vetiver would seek to repay that debt by releasing a covers album shouldn’t come as a surprise. Beyond the new LP, Cabic and Vetiver have spent as much time honoring their acoustic-guitar-loving predecessors as they have working on their own tunes. Besides Banhart, the band has recorded and toured with Vashti Bunyan, the obscure ’60s singer-songwriter who has become a matriarch figure to the Banhart, Cabic and Joanna Newsom cabal. A member or two of Vetiver gave the same treatment to the 2006 comeback album of Bert Jansch, the folkie guitar ace whom Jimmy Page “borrowed” licks from in his early Zeppelin days. And most recently, Cabic and his bandmates supplied support duties for ex-Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris for his first solo record and touring sojourn.

“A Thing Of The Past” isn’t much of journey from Vetiver’s first two albums. If the new disc is another stab at the ideal of a Sunday morning record, the band has progressed to a period later in the morning than their preceding album, “To Find Me Gone.” That disc is the perfect cool-down soundtrack to follow the instant that one transitions away from Saturday night’s late-night festivities. “To Find Me Gone” was the undiscovered, low-fi masterwork of 2006, achieving much of the Pacific atmospherics and mysterious songwriting narratives that Wilco sought to capture on their last disc. Vetiver’s new album shares this mood, but harnesses material from cult-favorite songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright (as well as prog-rocker Hawkwind) to make more accessible avenues into their sound and to show a side of the band that isn’t so super-serious.

Vetiver’s cover choices veer toward the obscure mostly stems from the fact that Cabic was a part-time DJ in years past and he uses his encyclopedic knowledge to snatch gems from his collection worthy of being popularized and suited to the band’s formidable strengths.

The record’s earliest cuts are among its strongest. “Houses” is an invocation into this weird world where Cabic leads us deeper down the rabbit hole with his placid singing and acoustic guitar plucking. Cabic poetically describes the dividing line that separates this imagined realm from reality. He calmly points out the either-or divide between those who get his world and those who don’t, and then bolsters his point with some George Harrison-like electric guitar breaks.

Next up is “Roll On Babe,” which beautifully combines James Taylor-like fingerpicking and a Flying Burrito Brothers aura to create a breezy, country shuffle about a hard-living rambler. The song, originally written by Norman Greenbaum (the singer famous for ’60s mega-hit “Spirit In The Sky”), glides along with ease thanks to drummer Otto Hauser’s gentle touch, the low hum of a Hammond organ and several interwoven guitar patterns. The underlying drive in the rhythm keeps the song from sagging into becoming just another cheap road song.

Besides good song selections, “A Thing Of The Past” demonstrates a rich variety in terms of approaches. It’s a facet brought on by the easy flexibility that the band has learned thanks to their continuing role as much-sought-after accompanists. The musicians expertly slide behind guest Bunyan, who duets with Cabic on “Sleep A Million Years.” Ever the supporting player, Cabic gives most of the spotlight over to his guru whose voice is breathy, pristine and hypnotic while ex-Beachwood Sparks member Dave Scher adds mournful pedal steel guitar passes. That song’s icy majesty is followed by the joyful, jangle-y sing-along “Hook & Ladder.” Cabic leads his troupe through an old-time-y jam of whistling, acoustic guitars and Brent Dunn’s oompah-pah bass and then the congregation approach toward vocal harmonies. Several tracks later, Vetiver is in full ’70s regalia with Van Zandt’s “Standin'” which is the kind of feel-good, groove-rock that Sheryl Crow would drool over.

Cabic turns the tables on tunesmith Garland Jeffrey when he transforms “Lon Chaney,” his honorarium for silent-film great and his horror/B-movie star son, into an even lusher piano ballad devoted to hero worship, but one that simultaneously pays tribute to both the subject and its creator. Jeffreys’ words aim to sooth the tormented monsters that dominated father and son’s filmography and Cabic attempts to introduce others to Jeffreys’ misunderstood catalog through a reverent rendition of the song’s arrangement. The cut sounds more epic and explicitly emotional than the original thanks to Cabic’s use of strings in the track’s latter half.

Discovering these songs and, so to speak, leaving them in a better shape than they found them is the ultimate goal of Vetiver’s album. Once again, the band’s musical selflessness goes a long way to making their inspirations appear the best that they can.

In the process, however, Vetiver continues to forge its own unique identity and takes a step closer to becoming heroes for the next generation of convention-defying musicians. A record like “A Thing Of The Past” should prompt many to rethink what they play on Saturday nights.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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