In the time since I first heard Espers and shrugged them off as twee folksy flouncers I have experienced a sudden connection with the late sixties through early seventies British folk-rock that so many link this band to. Richard & Linda Thompson, Fairport, Sandy Denny, Fotheringay… Okay, so my remit is still pretty narrow, circling around a handful of musicians who were certainly not the be all and end all of my ancestral folk-rock, but the fact remains that a genre I once thought ridiculous has become a staple of my listening.
Strangely enough this connection was in part forged and encouraged by Meg Baird (of Espers) and by Arbouretum, the Baltimore band with whom she has recently been joining as a vocalist on occasion. Arbouretum were so frequently compared to Richard Thompson’s work that I went digging, and turned up a major encounter. Baird’s album Dear Companion has rarely left my orbit in the six months since we crossed paths; her voice leant so eagerly towards these Sceptic’d Isles that I found my pride of the British accent taking another leap towards the heart, prompted by an unlikely source.
But I knew instantly that this record was never bound to join with this swirl, nor spin the carousel faster. Maybe it’s the fact that these MP3’s are oddly compressed or encoded (I know little of the science) or maybe it’s just Greg Weeks’ production, all I know is that I don’t like the sound as it emanates from my speakers; it’s a strong enough reaction to overwhelmingly prejudice my interaction with the compositional element. I am assuming that Weeks, the Espers guitarist, songwriter, label owner (Language of Stone) and busy producer (of Bonnie Billy, Marissa Nadler et al) was at the desk here, it sounds like his twiddling.
It sounds thin and washed out, cello’s and airy backing vocals are colourless and lacking in both character and depth, a point repetitively driven home by Weeks’ needling lead guitar. It’s a sharp, insistent sound that has a love it or loathe it kind of attack. I’ll admit that it blends well with the acoustic flourishes on the doom-folk incantations of ‘Meridian’, but I’ll defy anyone who claims that it’s the right sound to lead the buoyant, opener ‘I Can’t See Clear’. A cleaner sound could have achieved so much more. The acoustic guitars fare better, frequently coming out strongest. On softly intoned duet ‘The Road of Golden Dust’ the steel strings oscillate warm and organic under rolling percussion and subtle hook submerged in chorus and phaser.
And then that lead comes back, sounding somewhat like Honey ‘Valet’ Owens’ trademark acid-noodling, but with a vast chasm of tasteful application separating the two and ruining the track for me. On ‘Another Moon Song’ Baird takes another prominent lead, singing in her airiest high register. Personally this is my least favourite of her singing styles, incomparable with the human fullness of solo cuts like ‘Waltz of the Tennis Players’ and ‘The Cruelty of Barbry Allen’.
She did sing like this on the solo record, but only when imbued with the swift-flowing spirit of her autoharp - and the abundant space around it - creating an enlivening thrust towards the horizon accompanied by a wistful passion in the voice. Here she seems to be straining to break free from a pudgy swoon of a song and consequently her vocal starts to grate. She’s afforded little room to manoeuvre, forced to hover too close to the microphone. A quick switch between this record and hers instantly reveals the over-application of compression which renders III so dense and claustrophobic, where one always sounds too loud and forceful, the other sounds just right at any volume. It reminds me of tactic that has been used to thrust Nadler’s spectral whisperings right down the lug ‘ole; Ok, so I’m not an expert with the terminology of production and engineering, but I hope I have made the effect clear.
The band share some traits with Circulus (who recently managed to record and produce themselves adeptly), sounding like a paranoid incarnation of them on the urgent skitter of ‘Colony’. Of course the humour, horniness and alien abduction themes are absent, but the hint of Elizabethan scales amidst lysergic swirl makes an argument for Espers being the slightly po-faced pioneering brethren of our homegrown clownish loonies. I know which of the two does it for me, and it’s no longer down to a disdain for elocution, fashion or the brandishing of antiquity…