Espers is one of these bands that existed in my mind long before I heard them. I was familiar with the excellent solo work of its members, including Meg Baird & Helena Espvall. I saw Helena solo many times and once even sitting in with the excellent Japanese band Ghost. I was familiar with Brooke Sietinsons from the excellent house shows she put on in her back yard and living room of her row house in Fishtown. But for some reason I never saw the full band or checked out their recordings. I think they went on hiatus shortly after I rolled back into Philly from the west coast. Their music took place in my imagination, wood nymphs and magical medieval elixirs. All the rapturous reviews don’t really match the beauty and depth of this band. I am sure my own blabbering will fall short, but I will try.
What surprised me about this disc was how rocking it was. It definitely has a feel of a lost 1970’s psych/folk rock record. Meg’s vocals soar above slightly proggy guitar lines on the first song “I can’t see Clear.” There is a heaviness to the tune but also a lot of air surrounding it. It feels like the sun comes out surprisingly during a light rain. It is bright and sunny but it is foreboding on the horizon. “The Road of Golden Dust” features the vocals of Greg Weeks along with Meg’s backing vocals. The electric guitar manages to be both blistering and sit in the mix in beautiful balance with the plaintive strings and a subtle but spot-on rhythm section. One notices how well these songs flow into one another. They say this album was designed with vinyl in mind, and it was recorded beautifully by Weeks @ Hexham Head in Philadelphia. It was mixed and had some additional recording done at the legendary Miner Street Studio by Brian McTear. While my promo copy is on CD, I can imagine how gorgeous this record would sound on vinyl.
“Caroline” features great strings and a vocal duet between Greg & Meg. A keyboard line floats above the babbling brook of acoustic guitars, strings and light percussion. The feel is buoyant yet wistful. “That Which Darkly Thrives,” as the title implies, is slightly ominous. The bass and drums are in the forefront this time, with ghostly wordless multi-tracks female vocals rising and falling behind the beat, before Greg’s strong voice comes in, the music swells and subsides like a tide on stormy beach. “Sightings” is more upbeat with stabs of strings and Meg’s most stunning vocal performance of the album. The electric guitar line that soars along almost matches the exquisiteness of her voice. “Meridian” has a great Fairport Convention, Pentangle vibe or even the late-era solo work of Mary Timony, who also managed to pull off the mix of prog and folk, which in the wrong hands can be a dangerous combination. The Espers pull the mix off wonderfully.
“Another Moon Song” is a sweet little tune with a loping bass line and glistening strings. I love the electric guitar tone on this album. It stands out but doesn’t overpower the acoustic instrumentation. Brooke’s acoustic guitar work allows the electric guitar to go out and explore soundscapes while keeping it firmly rooted to the mix. Brooke is also responsible for the layout of the packaging. She worked with the great visual artist Xavier Schipani whose illustrations show mysterious pre-Columbian rituals of the new world.
Espers mixes effortlessly the ancient into the modern. Their music exists outside of normal time and space. On the surface it seems all sunny, but there is a darkness and complexity held within. This is a stunning record that is as magnificently recorded as it was played. (Drag City)