Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Vedera: Stages (the album)

Note to self for the future: do not start listening to an album with the hope or expectation that it will be your favorite of the year. It's not a fair basis for a review. Nor is it realistic to set expectations for an album based on three songs you know it's going to contain. Imagine, for example, listening to "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "The Fool on the Hill" and "Penny Lane" over and over (and over and over and over...) on some hypothetical Magical Mystery EP for the better part of a year, with the future knowledge that there was going to be some sort of Magical Mystery Tour album containing those songs. Those are three incredibly good songs. Some of the best in the Beatles' entire catalog--and that's saying something.

When the full-length Magical Mystery Tour came out, you'd probably get a few pleasant surprises ("I Am the Walrus", "All You Need is Love"). And eventually you'd hit stuff like "Baby You're a Rich Man" and start thinking, okay, what the heck is this? This is not a bad song, but it's nowhere near "Penny Lane" in terns of sheer awesomeness.

That was the inherent danger in listening to--and falling in love with--the Stages EP back in January. The three songs on that EP--"Satisfy", "Back to the Middle", and "A World Apart"--are easily the best three songs in Vedera's (admittedly more limited) catalog. I had deluded myself into thinking that the entire full-length would be as incredible as those three songs. Turns out that's not even close to a reasonable goal--but neither does it imply that the full-length album is bad.

To me, the core of the album is still the "cycle" of songs from the EP. And primacy being what it is, I think those are still the strongest tracks here. I'm not sure how Vedera intended those songs to be interpreted, but to me a very strong possibility is a miniature story: "girl realizes times were good back then and tries to get them back" ("Satisfy"); "girl decides to go back to guy, knowing that it wasn't perfect being with him but acknowledging he's the only thing she can think about" ("Back to the Middle"); "girl admits that she can't be with guy after all, but figures out she's inexplicably stronger for it" ("A World Apart"). The tones of the songs fit:"Satisfy" is brimming with optimism; "Back to the Middle" is alternatively trepid and exultant, finally settling on "the middle"; "A World Apart" is longing yet resolute.

But Stages breaks apart these three tracks--as well it should, to avoid a "more of the same" feeling--and adds a few kinks into the story. "Forgive You" and "Goodbye My Love" are the other side of the "Satisfy" coin, where "girl wonders whether or not it's worth it to give guy a second chance." By the end of "Goodbye My Love", it seems that she's made her decision--but she's "drawn back" along the same old road anyway. In "Even I", she's in denial but is beginning to realize that she can't go back, leaving "A World Apart" with a much more defiant and individualistic tone.

The point of all that analysis is to say that by ordering songs correctly, the story an album tells can be completely different. That's one of Stages' many strengths.

Another obvious high point is lead singer Kristen May's voice. Over the band's first full-length, The Weight of an Empty Room, plus this one, May's voice has been at times growly, edgy, soaring, bittersweet, vulnerable, and confident. But regardless of the mood, May's vocals are always passionate and always impressive. She's obviously Vedera's strongest link, and her virtuoso vocal performances are what make Vedera stand out as a band worth listening to.

It's no surprise, then, that the weakest points of this album are when May's voice is at its least interesting. May's voice is one built to soar above the rest of the band, to shine through the instrumentation, so it's not surprising that the more of these vocals Vedera throws into the new songs, the better they turn out. That's what elevates "Greater Than" into one of the best songs on the album and what makes me like "The Rain" and "Goodbye My Love" in spite of myself.

It's also what makes "Loving Ghosts" and "Even I" probably the two worst songs, or at least the least interesting. Here, May's voice is a middling to good alto, but we've become accustomed to a stunning soprano. Vedera toured extensively with the Fray over the last year or two, and it shows in these two songs. Now, I have nothing against the Fray. I think they make fine music. But they have the "middle-tempo, piano-driven, softish pop rock" market cornered, and Vedera does not need to challenge them on it. Moreover, Vedera has Kristen May; why would Vedera want to challenge them on it?

And still, if the worst thing that can be said about this album is that it's too much like the Fray, that's hardly scathing criticism.

The only other critique I'd level is that some of the metaphors in the lyrics are a little stale, like Vedera is trying too hard to say something creative. There are good ones, like "lived tossed along these waves" in Satisfy. And then there are a few atrocious ones, like the entire premise of "I am the rain" and just about everything in "Goodbye My Love": "uncut diamond", "storm on a quiet day", etc. etc. But a few tepid lyrics don't come close to representing a deal breaker for this album.

Stray observations on other songs: "Look Around" would have been right at home on The Weight of an Empty Room; it recalls some of the first album's edge and meandering, noncommittal tonality--without sounding like it was recorded in a shoebox.

"We Sing" uses the old Vedera trick of "take the chorus from a decent song from the old album and leverage it to create a freaking great song on the new album." In this case, Vedera stole from "For a Friend"; we've seen it before when they robbed their own "Desire on Repeat" to make "Satisfy". I'm ambivalent toward that tactic. I can justify it as long as it's part of the "reinvention" from Veda to Vedera. But if I see "you're the only one I know who brings me back to the middle" show up in the chorus to a new song on the next Vedera album (which better not be too far away!), I'll feel a lot worse about it.

Move Forward is an interesting jam-ish way to end the album. I can't figure out if it's a bonus track or not... the only problem with having bought it off iTunes. I'm inclined to think that it is because it doesn't show up in the liner notes. They end similarly, both on a strangely transcendent major second piano chord that dares you, don't go back and listen to this album again. You probably won't be able to resist.

And finally, the liner notes to the album are downright beautiful--simple, elegant, artistic without really trying... a lot like Kristen May's voice at its most expressive.

I came into this album wanting it to be the best one of the year. Now that I've thought about it, given it a fair shake, and not judged it against what I thought it possibly could be, it almost delivers.


Currently listening: "Wild Horses", the Rolling Stones

1 comment:

Lewis said...

Vedera’s new album “Stages” is out now. You can listen to their album on MySpace http://www.myspace.com/vedera and order the album at http://bit.ly/b9bCwU