Old And New With Death Vessel
The music of Death Vessel (a Providence, Rhode Island-based collaboration
of Joel Thibodeau, Eric Carlson and Pete Donnelly) reaches far back
into the past, beyond the 1960s and 1970s folk troubadours beloved by psyche-folk artists, toward old-time minstrels, hootenannists and string-band
itinerants. Cuts like "Mandan Dink," off the new Stay Close on
Northeast Indie, feel like authentic relics of another age. From the
latticework guitar-picking to the high, lonely vocals, the mood is so
old-time that you wait for the pop and crackle of 78 vinyl. Yet on other
cuts, such as the glowingly beautiful "Break the Empress Crown," more
modern textures and tones permeate the sunny melody.
Thibodeau says that this contradiction between familiar and antique is something that fascinates him, not just in music, but in older objects,
writing and art.
"Music, but also objects, have this whole other dimension
of emotion to them," Thibodeau said. "Some of the issues that people are dealing
with in old songs and old writings are things that we don't seem to deal
with right now. Of course, there's a continuing emotional
sentiment carried over, as far as just humanity goes, but just the type
of troubles that you have, or the things you do in your daily life... what we
do today is so different."
He added, "A lot of old folk music has this
contradictory element, where things can be very pleasing and disturbing at
the same time. I don't really know what that's all about, but it ends up
being very interesting."
"It's the combination of familiarity and strangeness," agreed
Carlson. "You recognize the thing, whether it's an old object or music or
writing. You recognize what it is and what it was for and why people were
doing it. Still, the fact that it's from this different era makes it
strange and allows you to see things about it that you can't see in things
from your own time period. It's that removal that adds an element of
strangeness, but it's not just the strangeness... it's that it allows you to
see these things and feel them in a different way because they're familiar
and yet very removed from you."
For instance, the band's first album, Stay Close, now out on
Northeast Indie, is illustrated with an altered daguerreotype showing three
boys, one unmistakably lying dead in the arms of his brother. Thibodeau's
brother and artist William Shaft found the image and added a skeleton's
image. The result is disturbing, backward-looking and oddly beautiful,
just like the music inside.
Thibodeau is originally from around Kennebunkport, Maine, while Carlson
grew up in Ohio. The two met in Boston in the mid-1990s, when both were
fully committed to other bands. Thibodeau was playing in the
traditionally-rooted Stringbuilder with his brother Alex, while Carlson was
in the more modern Purple Ivy Shadows. With both bands slowing down, the
two began to talk about working on a project together, something that, as
Carlson put it, would combine their very different strengths.
In fact, they ended up with two projects. Death Vessel brought Carlson's
strong sense of texture and atmosphere to Thibodeau's tradition-referencing
song structures, while Area C harnessed Thibodeau's folk instrumental
skills in a more free-form and experimental format. Both bands had two
members Thibodeau and Carlson creating a bit of confusion for
Boston-area bookers. "We would do these different duo shows. It would be
myself and Eric and then... myself and Eric," said Thibodeau.
Carlson, meanwhile, was becoming more and more fascinated with older folk
music, particularly through the landmark Anthology of American Folk
Music. "There was just a fascinating quality to that folk music that
had been passed around by generations, but also something that was
expressed through musicians who were trying to make it as musicians in
their own way in that period," he said. "And just the oddity of the
recordings themselves, the sound quality of those recordings, was what made
them so captivating. That's always been something that's been important to
me, how things sound, the way recordings sound has a lot to do with the
effect that it has on me as a listener, and the quality of those recordings
and the way music and personalities were expressed through that was very
influential for me, and I think... I'm not sure exactly how, but it
definitely affected the way that I approach songs that Joel and I were
working on together."
Yet while these earlier influences were definitely important, Thibodeau
also drew inspiration from more contemporary songwriters, including Tom
Waits, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, and Will Oldham of Palace and
other bands. "But one of the things that those bands or people all do is
to make these songs that obviously have stories that go to them," he
said. "And also, all three of those people have a very distinct sound
that, again, creates this kind of mood that, it's unmistakable if you
listen to any of those bands, who it is. That's partly what makes them great."
Carlson explained that while Thibodeau does most of the initial
songwriting, the two of them work closely together to bring melody, mood
and instrumentation into alignment. "We take those bones of it, the
essential elements of the song, and really spend a lot of times trying
different ways and just exploring the different possibilities within those
parts and trying different things over," he said. "When we are playing
together, it's just exploring the different ways that we can play our
instruments together. That's essentially leading to the finished idea."
On Stay Close the pair also drew on the talents of a number of
like-minded musicians. Pete Donnelly, who appears on nearly every track, singing and playing bass and drums, recorded the album. Micah Blue Smalldone,
who like Thibodeau is originally from coastal Maine, contributed his
intricate, traditionally-rooted guitar-picking to two tracks. Stand-up
bass came from Brendan Skwire, who also plays with Jim and Jennie and the
Pinetops, while Laura and Meg Baird (who also is a member of the Espers)
provided gorgeous backing vocals.
The songs range from very traditional ("Mandan Dink" "Tidy Nervous
Breakdown") to sunnily lyrical ("Break the Empress Crown") to more rock-oriented. "Blowing Cave" blends an Appalachian minor-key guitar pattern
with distorted electric guitar slashes for one of the album's most intense
and striking tracks. Thibodeau says that the idea for this track came from
his boyhood home. "I grew up in Maine, and apparently pirates in Maine
weren't able to bury treasure in the sand, so they would actually bury it
in caves," he explained. "The town that I grew up in in Maine has this
place called 'Blowing Cave,' which is this hollowed-out little cave,
supposedly a pirate cave."
Cerberus Shoal's Chriss Sutherland, who knows Thibodeau from his
Stringbuilder days, said, "Joel has a little Neil Young in there, with a mix
of Carter Family and Bill Monroe. Maybe he sings indie grass." He added,
"He is adorable and his voice is angelic. On a good night, if you're open
to it, Joel can really take you away."
Thibodeau says he has already started working on a new record, which will
most likely be recorded this winter, with Donnelly again, in a studio in
Philadelphia. He is also playing a few shows throughout the
Northeast. Check the band's Web site (www.deathvessel.com) for confirmed dates.
If you go, though, don't yell out any requests for "Girl From the North
Country" or "My Back Pages." A recent Dylan-themed show in Boston, timed
to coincide with an exhibit of newly rediscovered photos of the artist from
1964, left Thibodeau literally speechless. "I think that Dylan's a great
songwriter that has had a really big impact on a generation, and that's
obviously carried over. His voice is so strong, and his music is so strong
and enigmatic, to play his songs is very strange to me. So I was going to
do 'Love Minus Zero,' and I got to the second line and I... drew a
blank." An unusual event for one of new folk/bluegrass' most assured and
unusual new voices. Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, December 20, 2005]