Vetiver's last album, To Find Me Gone, was one of my favorite records of 2006. For some reason, I felt like I was supposed to like Califone more at the time, but Vetiver kept drawing me in with its folky, spooky, knock-your-socks-off songs. So it was with both enthusiasm and trepidation that I approached the band's new covers album, Thing of the Past. It's not too often that a band pulls off the covers concept in a satisfying way, but if anyone, Vetiver's talented leader Andy Cabic could carry the band through.
And carry he does. Thing of the Past is a potent disc, sounding very much like the modern indie folk that Vetiver does so well, in addition to conjuring up memories of the Band and their '60s and '70s ilk. Taken as a whole, it's way more upbeat than any previous Vetiver efforts. Or, more precisely, it's without the quiet spaces in between.
But why a covers record, especially since it's been two years since the band's last release? Isn't a covers record normally a stopgap?
"I wanted to get my band that I've been touring with since the last album into the studio," said Cabic over coffee at his local haunt in the Sunset. In person, he's a soft-spoken guy with a rustic beard and a blazer from a vintage store. "So I just thought to record some of the covers we've been doing live, it might be a fun idea. It wasn't like a grand concept behind it. It was just another opportunity to record, and introduce my band to Thom." (Thom is Thom Monahan, formerly with the Pernice Brothers, and Cabic's partner in producing from the very beginning).Thing of the Past features songs chosen from roughly a six-year period of time, from 1967 to '73, but from some unusual sources: Hawkwind for instance (odd choice), Garland Jeffreys (remember him?), Loudon Wainwright (okay, more understandable), and others. What makes a song worth covering? "Well, it's a balance of a good lyric, a good sound, something that's very compelling that stays with you," he said. "All of these songs have that quality. I listened to them a lot at home, they became staples of friends of mine, and I kind of adopted them."
Rich-sounding guitar strumming opens the first track, "Houses," from forgotten Canadian folky Elyse Weinberg, before the band kicks in with a loose, Saturday-afternoon kind of feel. On "Roll On Babe," adopted from a Ronnie Lane album, the old-school Fender bass sound comes to fore, like Carol Kaye was sitting in. One of the sunniest moments comes on Norman Greenbaum's "Hook & Ladder," with its chorus of whoa, whoa, whoa. But that's a close call, because sunny vibes permeate the album. (Check out "Standin'" by Townes Van Zandt, where the loose-limbed groove belies the beaten-down lyrics.) The album closes with what could be a statement of purpose: Bobby Charles' "I Must Be in a Good Place Now," repurposed as a gentle lullaby.
While past Vetiver projects have essentially been loose amalgamations of Cabic's friends (famously Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, among others), the move to record the band he has toured with is a major step in a different direction. While To Find Me Gone boasted a huge cast of contributors, Thing of the Past was primarily laid down live in the studio with Cabic, Brent Dunn on bass, Sanders Trippe on guitar and vocals, Otto Hauser on drums and keyboards, and Kevin Barker on guitar, banjo, and vocals. The tight band creates a vibe and doesn't let it go. This makes for an easygoing ride through the album, perfect for top-down drives along the coast on a sunny day, but with enough subtle production tweaks to satisfy a late-night headphone listen.
"Well, that's the fun part, for me," Cabic said of those studio touches, from the occasional huge snare drum hit to some subliminal adjustments to his vocals. "That's one of the reasons I always work with Thom is that we have a really easy rapport and we always seem to want the same thing from a Vetiver song. Instinctively, he'll move things in a direction that I wanted without me having to broach the subject half the time." But, he added, "Everything was sounding so good live that we didn't add a lot of stuff."
Even so, some of the recent studio experience bodes well for the next time around. "With my vocals, we're still trying to find a good pairing with a microphone," Cabic said. "We tried a lot of things, and some of them I didn't care for, so we reconvened at Thom's place in Los Angeles and got it towards the end. So that's really exciting for me, because the next record we'll have more idea of what works and we can be more focused about it."
Another notable facet of Thing of the Past is the presence of two of Cabic's musical heroes, Vashti Bunyan, who duets with him on "Sleep a Million Years," and maverick folk troubadour Michael Hurley, whose other devotees include Cat Power (who included Hurley's songs on her own covers records). "Michael was actually coming to San Francisco to play ... and he stopped by the studio," Cabic said. "His arm started acting up, so he bailed on the show and stayed with us the whole time we were tracking." Hurley ended up playing on a few songs and singing on his own song, "Blue Driver," where his slightly craggy voice provides a nice contrast with Cabic's smooth, almost nonchalant delivery.
Perhaps the only thing more one could ask for would be Cabic's own songs. "I've been touring a lot, and I haven't found a way to reconcile that with writing," he explained. "I need a place I'm familiar with, and some time alone, walk around, be relaxed about it. I can't do it with any degree of expectancy, I have to do it for the fun of it." He claims to have just enough songs for a new record, although there's time yet. And with the coalescing of his new band, it's entirely possible that a new album of originals will be a different animal entirely from his earlier efforts.
With thoughts of that new record being started this fall after a summer of touring, Cabic is enthusiastic about the coming months. His eyes light up as he thinks about the future: "I feel like we haven't even scratched the surface of what we could be doing."
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