An album that reins in the band’s multi-layered opacity for a new-found airiness.
David Sheppard 2009-10-15
Of all the new-millennium folk revival’s leading lights, it’s perhaps Philadelphia collective Espers who have cleaved most ardently to the ancient rustica-meets-electric guitars and drums blueprint first laid down by late 1960s British folk-rock avatars Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Not that theirs is an exclusively nostalgic muse. On a brace of preceding albums, finger-picked acoustic guitars, briar bush narratives and fairy ring vocals have sometimes rubbed up against lead guitarist Brooke Sietinsons’ needling effects-pedal riffing and the odd smearing of electronic scree from producer and group founder, Greg Weeks. Indeed, in their press release, the band admits that III purposefully reins back the multi-layered opacity that characterised their sometimes claustrophobic previous album, the unsurprisingly titled II.
The new-found airiness suits them. In Meg Baird, Espers surely possess their generation’s answer to Fairport’s Sandy Denny; a chanteuse whose chaste yet seductive tones lend a maidenly elegance to anything she sings (interested parties are ushered toward Baird’s gorgeous 2007 solo outing, Dear Companion) – and it’s her unobstructed pipes that endow III with its most bewitching moments. The languid, shuffling Caroline finds her breathily consoling voice soaring above Weeks’ muted intoning, while around them acoustic guitars ripple and ethereal feedback hovers in the margins like an encroaching storm that never quite breaks. On the contrastingly soft-pedalled The Pearl, meanwhile, Baird emotes sublimely if mysteriously about “Another golden brother / Another hopeless son”, against an almost jazzy chord progression wrapped in chamber strings and plangent guitars.
Elsewhere, spidery fuzztone six-string solos lend grit; occasionally stacked into ziggurats of overdub harmony (a stylistic caprice no one’s really bothered with since Thin Lizzy in their twin-axe 70s pomp) which briefly threaten to overburden the otherwise pervading delicacy of introverted acoustic etude, Sightings. Things fall together with a more graceful synergy during Meridian, a song which recalls the acid folk medievalism of the Incredible String Band – all jaunty, circular melodies, plainsong-like harmonies and bucolic lyrics about the moon and stars. Like much of this unostentatiously produced album, it could have been recorded at any time during the last 40 years and will probably still beguile four decades hence.