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Espers - The Weed Tree

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Artist: Espers

Album: The Weed Tree

Label: Locust

Review date: Oct. 7, 2005

I’m probably not the only person out there who has been waiting patiently, yearning, praying, and generally languishing in the dark of my room for more music from the Philadelphia folkies, Espers. The then-trio’s self-titled debut was easily one of the best records of 2004, their combination of Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention school folk with an impenetrably glorious psychedelic gloom is the thing myths are made of. And no, that’s not just a reviewer’s hyperbole. The music on that album speaks for itself.

The Weed Tree is not the new full-length I’ve been waiting for; it’s an oversized EP of sorts featuring six covers and a single original song. The covers are all across the board – a pair of traditional Irish lamentations, a bittersweet Nico tune, a whimsical Durutti Column song, a simply bizarre Michael Hurley ditty, and a hard-rocking Blue Öyster Cult freakout – but Espers manages to make them all part of the same world. All of these songs are connected lyrically by an overriding sense of abandonment and despair. Their Hurley cover (“Blue Mountain”) is an exception, since the song is talking about a peaceful, silly escape from the world, but Espers render the lyrics moot by adding a fat 12-sting guitar low end, reverb-laden whistles, and dispassionate vocals. For the Nico (“Afraid”) and the Durutti Column (“Tomorrow”), they take the opposite approach, surrounding the deep melancholy of the lyrics with music that could almost be called cheery. And Blue Öyster Cult’s “Flaming Telepaths” is transformed from a heavy paean about the dangers of heroin into an actual depiction of a trip gone wrong.

The biggest departure in Espers’ sound on The Weed Tree is the vocals. On their debut, the voices were essentially another instrument to blend in with the psychedelic stew, the lyrics lost in the haunt. Here, Meg Baird’s and Greg Weeks’ vocals are allowed to truly take the lead. Each song centers around their interplay, either with each other or overdubbed versions of themselves, and the harmonies that result are baroque and amazing. Baird’s singing style has changed as well (I hesitate to use “matured” here, since I don’t know if it’s necessarily an advance); she’s warmed up a bit, adding some vibrato, perhaps giving her a bit more vocal depth.

It is also worth noting that the band is now a sextet, with the folks that used to fill out their arrangements in concert now full-time members. As a result, there’s now a whole lot more percussion, even if there’s still nothing that slightly resembles a drum kit. Individual drums are all over the place but they add to the texture more than drive the rhythm. A minor stylistic point, yes, but still an important reason as to why Espers sound the way they do.

All of these little changes combine to make an album that’s as fantastic as their debut. It haunts as surely as their last, but with a little more subtlety; there’s just enough cheer in this music to confer a false sense of safety. And with the finale, “Dead King,” neatly folding into the opening “Rosemary Lane,” this EP is hypnotically self-contained, and more than enough to tide me over until their next full-length.

By Dan Ruccia

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