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Death Vessel - Stay Close

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Artist: Death Vessel

Album: Stay Close

Label: North East Indie

Review date: Mar. 22, 2005

So many bands channel the eerie, doomed vibe of Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music that it becomes easy to forget how much more there is to that collection than murder ballads. The loopy humor of “Drunkard’s Special” and “John Johanna,” the gleeful energy of the Social Music volume – these elements were kept alive during the ‘60s folk renaissance by Dylan, the New Lost City Ramblers and the Holy Modal Rounders, but it's become more common for today’s interpreters to tease out the more morbid strands.

It’s a bit ironic that a band called Death Vessel avoids this tendency by imbuing their neo-traditional folk music with buoyancy and good cheer. Based in Providence, the group is led by singer and multi-instrumentalist Joel Thibodeau, whose soaring, crystalline soprano may have you blinking in disbelief at his masculine first name. Thibodeau is formerly of Stringbuilder, a short-lived hootenanny band whose lickity-split banjo lines grace a couple of 7”s and a full-length, all of them well worth picking up. For Death Vessel, Thibodeau is joined by collaborator Erik Carlson plus a rotating cast of guest musicians including his brother Alec, solo guitar picker Micah Blue Smaldone, and members of Espers and the Figgs.

Musically, Death Vessel plays it pretty straight, with bouncy major chords and clip-clops of minimal percussion, all warmly recorded to emit a happy and harmonious glow. The songs move at a loping Sunday pace that’s slow enough to reduce the risk of accidentals but quick enough to put some color in the cheeks. Aside from a surprising organ drone here, a particularly gallant fiddle line there, it’s all pretty workmanlike – happy, snappy and sunny. Thibodeau lets the mandolin notes fall like raindrops in “Mandan Dink,” a light-stomping reel, where clawhammer banjo and some plucky upright bass work do the same trick on “Tidy Nervous Breakdown.” Lap steel and the occasional electric burst of guitar waft in and out, but for the most part these songs are comprised of acoustic picking and plucking at a safe but skillful pace.

What lends Depth Vessel its unique charm is Thibodeau’s voice. He sings in a high register with a clear tone that’s beautifully sustained, but with an underlying inquisitiveness that’s distinctly childlike. Too pure and focused to run afoul of the Newsom/Banhart haters, it’s nevertheless an extraordinarily odd male voice. And Thibodeau plays to its strengths, wrapping it around fancy alliterations and using it to blow the dust off of quasi-historical bric-a-brac. Like most of the best folk tunes, few of these tracks make a lick of narrative sense. Thibodeau sings angelically about carcass racks and harpoons, pinking shears and burdock spurs, coining adverbs like “pelicanly” and “sans serif-ly” as he zips along. The places where Laura and Meg Baird (of Espers) offer harmony are especially nice treats.

Carefree, breezy and gracious, there isn’t a particularly broad emotional range to Death Vessel’s sound, however, which only becomes problematic late in the record when they attempt to cover Townes Van Zandt. Not that any mere mortal can fill that particular pair of boots, but this band lays their weaknesses bare by trying. “Snow Don’t Fall” is one of the few spots where they swap the acoustic bounce for long, languid lines of electric guitar, and Thibodeau flunks as a weathered, lovelorn cowboy. Nevertheless, there’s a good bit of room between the band’s hushed vulnerabilities and their bouncy hoedowns, and they’ll be well worth keeping an ear on as they continue to evolve.

By Nathan Hogan

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