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Espers - III

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 8 / 10 / 2009



Espers - III
Label: Wichita
Format: CD

intro

Long-awaited and more lighter-toned third album from brooding Philadelphian psychedelic folk set, Espers


There’s been an enormous amount of interest in the last couple of years in the cannon of British folk rock and psychedelic folk from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – the period of beards, prog rock, flutes and communes, before the arrival of punk shifted indelibly the musical landscape. This has manifested itself not just on these shores, with the likes of Tunng, Adem and James Blackshaw – as well as a resurgent Vashti Bunyan, herself a survivor from the early 70’s - but also in the USA, with Davendra Barnhart, Vetiver, MV & EE, Six Organs of Admittance, and too many other acts to mention. These bands have taken the blueprint established by Fairport Convention, Pentangle, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Trees, and even the slightly naff Steeleye Span (of “All Around My Hat” fame), and ran away with it, twisting the folk trope into all kinds of new shapes. This has been particularly true of Philadelphia sextet Espers, who ostensibly sound more than the aforementioned British folk rock acts from days gone by than ‘indigenous’ American folk artists such as John Fahey or Woody Guthrie. Taking the baton opened up by Fairport Convention’s more atmospheric songs such as 'Reynardine' and the extraordinary 'A Sailor’s Life', the band remain one of the most intriguing in the genre, with singer Meg Baird in particular bringing to mind Sandy Denny in all her glory, though with a slightly more breathy, whispery delivery – one that was particularly put to use on the band’s first, self-titled album, recorded while they were only a trio of Baird, Greg Weeks, and Brooke Sietinsons. That album sounded like Fairport if spun through a kaleidoscopic, acid-drenched world, with finger cymbals, chimes, harmonica, dulcimer, autoharp, tone generators, “acid leads” (whatever that is) and God knows what other weird instruments adding to the strange and slightly eerie mix. It’s centrepoint was 'Hearts & Daggers', an eight-minute plus hymn that conjured up visions of forests, witches and druids in an increasingly dark and nightmarish manner, with the song stretching out into an unshackled cacophony of frantic overlapping flutes and distorted guitar bowing, while closing track 'Travel Mountains' ended with unnerving treated helium vocals, like a ghost whaling in the darkened woods. Elsewhere, though, was pastoral beauty. The follow up, 'Espers II', was even more layered, with the expanded line-up delivering claustrophobic, dense, trance-like tracks such as 'Widow’s Weed' and 'Mansfield and Cyclops'. That album propelled the band deeper into the limelight, which means that 'III' has been eagerly awaited, exacerbated by the album’s long gestation (with Swedish cellist Helena Espvall collaborating with artists such as Ghost’s Masaki Batoh and the aforementioned Blackshaw). As the press blurb confirms, the album has a lighter feel to the dense and layered 'II', perhaps brought about by the band’s relocation the countryside (though Meg Baird’s simple, uncluttered solo album 'Dear Companion' may have had an influence too). This is particularly clear in the album opener 'I Can’t See Clear', which is the most straightforward folk-rock the band have done, right down to Weeks’ slightly cheesy guitar riffs. 'The Pearl', meanwhile, is a gorgeous ballad, with a simple plucked acoustic guitar, violin and backing vocals embellishing the song over a sparse drumbeat, and Baird delivering one of her most captivating vocal turns to date. Set against a blood-red sunset, what the song’s lyrical matter is about is anyone’s guess (“another golden brother / another hopeless son”), but it’s one of the band’s highlights to date, and unavoidably displays the influence of the mature, unadorned feel of Baird’s solo work prominently.'That Which Darkly Thrives' has a darker feel, utilising Swedish cellist Helena Espvall’s frenetic bowing over Week’s voice. The song ends with cello and squealing analogue keyboards tailing out, reminding you that the band’s other debt lies with much 70’s prog rock. 'Sightings', by contrast, is a more relaxed, cheerful jaunt, with some beautiful jumping high-end guitar and cello lines, and Baird’s breathless vocals the perfect heir to Sandy Denny as she reminisces about a “starborn lighthouse” or similar. 'Meridian', though, returns to the darker mood of 'II', rocking out with both Baird and Weeks on vocals together. 'Another Moon Song', meanwhile, is an example of how the album is decidedly uncluttered compared to its predecessor, a slow waltz with a simple tremeloed guitar line and organ accompanied by Baird intoning “You shine so pretty through your window”, the song occasionally threatening to rage with Weeks’ interjection of electric guitar. By contrast, 'Colony', once again reverts to the dark, intense feel of 'II', this time recalling 'Mansfield & Cyclops'” off that album, with its driving, tribal drums and lyrical preoccupation with the darker side of the human mind as manifested in films such as 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Aguirre Wrath of God', where Westerners in the jungle are forced to confront their own psyche – or, as the press release puts it obtusely with a homage to Spacemen 3, “taking drugs to take canoe trips to take drugs on”. Just when it seems like the album may revert to the previous album’s claustrophobia, the album closer 'Trollslända' (“dragonfly” in Swedish, or “troll’s spindle” as it’s literally translates) is a beautiful, warm ending, with Espvall’s cello at its best and Weeks and Baird combining vocals brilliantly over a mid-paced beat, offering simple heartfelt reflection: “Oh my dear, all of my days…all is the same”. With the album having less mind-bending effects than it’s two predecessors, while still occasionally capturing their elements, the track encapsulates perfectly the feel of an album that has, as they put it themselves, “a stronger, more oxygenated sonic presence”.



Track Listing:-
1 I Can't See Clear
2 The Road Of Golden Dust
3 Caroline
4 The Pearl
5 That Which Darkly Thrives
6 Sightings
7 Meridian
8 Another Moon Song
9 Colony
10 Trollslända



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