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Artist: Espers

Album: Espers

Label: Locust

Review date: Apr. 1, 2004

Good folk music should haunt you at night. It might lull you into a feeling of blissed-out tranquility, but secretly it’s imparting you with an occult, cabalistic knowledge. Behind the flowers and fields lies not utopia, but the devil offering you a chance at the sublime in exchange for your soul. It will turn you into Faust or Don Juan, except you won’t realize your predicament until you’ve already signed the contract. It yearns back to the days of the Gothic when the gargoyles atop cathedrals were more than just ornaments and the Baroque with its ornately crafted lines and musical interplay. And Espers, the Philadelphia-based trio of Meg Baird, Brooke Sietinsons, and Greg Weeks, make good folk.

So how does a good folk album create this concealed doom? It relies on a combination of vocal lines, instrumental choices, and arrangements. In the case of Espers, the instrumentation is crucial: most are stringed, acoustic, and either strummed or bowed (the dulcimer and autoharp provide wonderful idiosyncrasy beyond the normal plucked 12-string guitar sound), though there are some electronics and wind instruments added at just the right moments. Each instrument is given just the space it needs to speak and make its impact heard, from the beckoning oscilloscope rumbles and cello moans on “Meadow” to the spaced-out electric guitars that cut through the mix in “Travel Mountains.” And when a timbre comes to the fore, it is allowed to go on as long as it needs to really make a point, develop an idea, and reach some kind of conclusion. The whole thing is intensified by the almost complete lack of percussion (Sietinsons’ finger cymbals being the one exception, but they’re more a color than a beat), with all the rhythmic sense coming from something strummed.

And if the predominantly minor instrumental parts aren’t disconcerting enough, Weeks’ and Baird’s voices make the whole affair even spookier. Vocals are often said to hover, float, soar, or any number of other clichéd terms, but here they seem to exist on the very edge of the natural world. They are the will o’ wisps to the music’s marsh; the apparition that stands by your side in an abandoned house whose presence is felt more than seen. Both Weeks and Baird sing in a plain, unadorned style that has just enough ambiguity that you wonder if they’re actually there. In fact, the specific words matter less than the individual lines and harmonies, but the words sometimes emerge fall in line with their surroundings.

And there is why good folk music is inherently demonic; it takes many simple (but not simplistic) parts and merges them into a strikingly sophisticated whole. Virtuosity, it’s true, has typically been the thing associated with the paranormal. (Read some 19th century accounts of Paganini’s or Liszt’s playing. They’re fascinating.) But virtuosity can only go so far and can quickly sound dated. By eschewing the complicated, Espers has created something that exists outside of time. I can’t imagine this music ever not existing or coming into existence (short of just appearing to someone at a séance or the like). Espers’ music simply is, and well worth a fling with the devil.

By Dan Ruccia

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