Death Vessel - "Bruno's Torso" (Nothing is Precious Enough for Us)
The title of Death Vessel's latest might read as a self-deprecating retort to critics of Joel Thibodeu's richly melodic lilts, but it's more statement of purpose than arch irony. Mr. Thibodeu moves past the indie and country influences of 2005's Stay Close (which we really, really loved) toward a darker strain of Americana, only to reject it. The album is a steadfast pursuit of the loveliest melody, of the most lyrical lyrics. Think of this as the antidote to David Eugene Edwards' Woven Hand project. These are songs written to rise above the demons, rather than do battle with them.
This approach might not prove as satisfying to those of us who like a touch of fire and brimstone emotional depth-plumbing in their singer-songwriters, but, as the title indicates, Mr. Thibodeu and his collaborators are smart enough to push and develop his chosen tack. He forgoes Microphones recording tricks and Beirut stylization to thankfully bring the focus back to the songs themselves. The production, courtesy of Thibodeu and Pete Donnelly of The Figgs, stays out of the way. Though some of the textures hint at large or unusual instrumentation, the album is fairly stripped-down. What's left is mostly acoustic strumming, clean electric noodling, a few accouterments, and Thibodeu's high-pitched vocals that wind their way around the melodies. The opening lines of "Block My Eye" - "Now I am versed in silence / My throat hurts, not from yelling but from holding back / I won't say E, A, I, O or U" - set the stage perfectly by providing a manifesto of clever that elbows ribs while retaining emotional relevance.
It's a lucidly serious moment that the rest of the album doesn't really match. The lyrics reach where they should break through, and though the songs are typically pleasant, a sameness pervades. Mr. Thibodeu hasn't pushed the philosophy of the title far enough. If he did, the album might have revealed that even self-awareness of the precious pursuit isn't enough to make that pursuit sufficient in itself. Joanna Newsom's Ys did this work more successfully two years ago. The genius in that album was to blur the lines between reality and Newsom's created world to the point where the preciousness collapsed on itself. Those who labeled Y's as "too precious" missed the point – it had already thrown rocks from within its own glass house. In comparison, the idea of actively furthering the idea of nothing being too precious seems, I don't know, adolescent.
Indeed, the best moments of Nothing is Precious Enough for Us are the ones where Death Vessel break the template and allow degrees of rawness to pop out of the mix. "Peninsula" tacks on a surprising Neil Young guitar workout to a song that was ostensibly going nowhere; the move elicits genuine surprise. Similarly, the vocal round on "Circa" shows the benefits and richness of yelling, of saying E, A, I, O and U. The album is an enjoyable listen, but not enough is at stake for it to get under your skin.