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The Cave Singers - Invitation Songs

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Artist: The Cave Singers

Album: Invitation Songs

Label: Matador

Review date: Jan. 16, 2008

Guitars are steel strings pulled taut over wood: in electric guitars, you hear the steel; in acoustic guitars, you hear the wood. The three members of the Cave Singers came from raunchy and jagged Seattle bands, but for this band they all take turns on acoustic guitars and make music that sounds surrounded by pines. It's not strictly pastoral; synth and echo effects garnish the sound, and most numbers have drums. But the longing that hangs over Invitation Songs is the work of those rustic and mesmerizing acoustic lines.

The Cave Singers' folkiness pulls them in two directions – pre-war old-time music and California pop of the 1970s. Singer Peter Quirk's delivery is as nasal and cutting as a voice on an eerie 78, but his phrasing is a lot more like Lindsey Buckingham in 1978. Lyrics are put together like old ballads, graced with lines that start "Oh, blight life" or "Oh Lord, tear me down," even if they resolve with anachronisms like "maybe L.A.'s a new home for this man?" And the most dramatic passages on Invitation Songs take advantage of studio craftsmanship, like the way the bobbing campfire feel of "Seeds of Night" gets subsumed for a just few measures by electric jangle, and later a distant trumpet comes in to color the final chorus.

Their best songs mix the legendary with contemporary – it's an ambitious thing to try, and a bit of a feat to pull it off without the seams showing. Like Gillian Welch’s rawest tracks, they're spooky with out being self-consciously retro. It's a shame that a video to promote "Dancing on Our Graves" tries to do the same thing visually, showing mock footage of an Appalachian snake handling congregation lip syncing the lyrics, complete with a stump-armed guitarist. The video's streaked and grainy film comes across like a peeling whitewashed wardrobe, new from Pottery Barn.

Ignore that, and songs like "New Monuments" are sincere and effective. It's got the doomed imagery of "House of the Rising Sun" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" and a stark melody that they play up with a funeral drumbeat. Their take is dark, but the song is complete enough that you can imagine it reinterpreted a dozen different ways. You can't fake that.

By Ben Donnelly

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