Witchy Women and Stouthearted Men
In late October, when the veil between the spirit world and our everyday world is thin, Philadelphia’s folk-rock ensemble, Espers, issued its latest album: III. On the evidence of the album’s ten tracks, the band is in direct communication with the spirit of an earlier time, roughly 1968 to 1974, when bands like Pentangle and King Crimson fashioned a new variety of rock and roll, independent of blues-based American popular music.
Chief among this record’s virtues is Meg Baird’s singing. Her high, clear voice hearkens back to an earlier style of folk music, perhaps the early 1950s, but she avoids the declamatory, grating tone those earlier singers sometimes employed. Indeed, despite the band’s fey attitude, her voice is welcoming. “I need you round the middle. / I’m not a broken boy,” she proclaims in “The Pearl,” which may be about femininity in general.
Or it may not be. The lyrics, which were written collaboratively, are generally oblique and occasionally difficult to discern. “Slumbering under a lumbering sun / Blistering bodies resolve into one,” Baird and guitarist, Greg Weeks, intone on “Colony,” which gives a flavor of the whole album. Fortunately, sound appears to be more important to Espers than sense, so Baird’s voice is best enjoyed as one of the instruments.
She’s in good company. Helena Espvall’s cello adds depth and mystery to the woozy prog-rocker, “That Which Darkly Thrives,” and draws “The Road of Golden Dust” to its shadowy conclusion. Otto Hauser’s drumming is exemplary throughout. Whether it’s his brushwork on “Caroline” or the roiling pulse in “Sightings,” he ensures that the band never devolves into plodding bombast.
That’s important, because this music has progressive tendencies. From opening number, “I Can’t See Clear,” to closing track, “Trollslända,” Weeks’ guitar playing calls to mind a fuzzed-out Robert Fripp. “Another Moon Song,” in particular, bears the stamp of the dark lord of Frippertronics.
Overall, Espers’ prog-folk is diverting and well done, but it’s a relief to return to the mundane world when the record ends.