A couple years ago some friends and I drove to watch The Books in concert. Opening for the duo was a "group" called Death Vessel, which I hadn't heard of at the time. When Death Vessel came out on the stage, though, it was just a single androgynous human who sang in a voice that made it somewhat difficult to ascertain which sex they were.
It may sound like I'm being mean when I say the above, but you probably understand if you've heard Death Vessel. Joel Thibodeau is not only of very slight build with shoulder-length hair, but he sings in a high voice that floats somewhere near the lighter moments of Neil Young. Stay Close, the debut album from the group (which now seems to be Thibodeau and a rotating cast of friends and musicians) was a solid introduction, but this newest release is even further developed, with a nice mixture of sounds and a keen sense of arrangement that makes the quieter moments seem intensely intimate and the louder moments (which aren't really that loud) really pack a punch.
"Block My Eyes" opens the release and plays out in a fairly standard pop structure, with sparse verses that give way to slightly more punctuated choruses. It's the small details that really make the song, though, as everything from quiet organ to bells and backing vocals fill in things quietly while somewhat impenetrable (but still quite evocative) vocals tell a somewhat indecipherable tale. "Jitterkadie" is more sparse, with some quiet brushed drums and the usual acoustic guitar and vocals. Again, it's the small hints around the edges that help make the song even more memorable, as singing wine glasses and found-sound percussion glint the edges.
"Fences Around Field" strips things down to what sounds like a couple people sitting on a backporch or around a campfire, but melodically it's one of the stronger songs on the album as Thibodeau's vocals in particular soar mightily while hand percussion rattles and some banjo strums provide the instrumental crux. Just to keep things measured, Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us lets loose just enough times to keep from sounding a bit too soft and steady. For the first two-thirds "Peninsula" seems like it's going to stretch things out for too long with a downcast vibe, but finally explodes in a fireball of electric guitar. With Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, The Elected, Holopaw, and now Death Vessel, it seems that the label that was built on grunge has now managed to wrangle themselves some of the best understated (but highly melodic and well crafted) rock around. Good on them.