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Espers - II

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Artist: Espers

Album: II

Label: Drag City

Review date: May. 29, 2006

II, the new album by Espers, displays an ostensibly humble and soft-spoken group, delving deeper into a painterly studio technique and considerate, evocative arrangements. It is both romantic and impressionistic, as a blurred and softened emotional violence sweeps throughout the album. The palette of sound is culled from only the finest in analog fetishism, denoted even in the liners is the country of origin of a certain distortion pedal, wearing its meticulous craftsmanship on its sleeve.

The dully-noted vernacular of medieval British folk idioms, or what Meg Baird deems its timeless qualities, creates what she calls “a sensation that these figures have a mystery and weight.” Espers are ultimately successful at creating this enigmatic ambience, with dynamism and a newfound ominous undercurrent, and they succeed at creating this ambience with their fashionably inaudible lyrics that occasionally come to the forefront long enough to hint at an olde English imagery. Yet, to use a loaded-music language with such a manipulative purpose seems suspect.

It is apparent throughout that wonder and bewilderment is the intended effect, and could be construed as a noble response to the pervasive sense of cynicism and reactionary tactics that have been increasingly fundamental components in modern pop music of the past 20 years. As such, even in the wide, red-eyed meanderings of the recent developments in psychedelic folk music, there is a perceived need for reinvention through self-consciously nonsensical lyrics or through self-validating excursions into avant-garde noise. Espers are clearly more concerned with creating a solid album than reinventing or redefining any particular idiom. Yet, this could also be the major problem with II.

The carefully-orchestrated preciousness and emphasis on mystery-over-meaning allow Espers to pass by without ever really clearly dealing with their surroundings or reality as a Philadelphia-based band. Everything is codified in a quasi-mystical language and this makes it vulnerable to accusations of affectation, regardless of the strength of the studio work or arranging. A group need not be chastised for a rich fantasy life or for reaching beyond their immediate experience, yet there is so little that is not enshrouded on II that one could easily long for a concretely-worded phrase or a wrong note.

Ultimately, the album is explicitly notable for its musicality, rather than its content. The songs are lush and unfurl at a perfectly-timed pace, with little glints of fluorescence appearing in the synthesizer melodies. There is a remarkable playfulness with musical synonyms, such as the interplay of strings, a guitar distorted just-so, and an overdriven organ on the opening “Dead Queen,” which all proves a great mastery of elemental instrumentation. But at the end of the album, the transience of the music leaves the reliance on anachronism as an unanswered question. Fortunately, there is still a lot to hear on II, even if it passes by all too quickly.

By Matt Wellins

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