Vetiver: “Thing of the Past”

The cover image says it all: A young woman sits surrounded by vinyl, cradling an LP in her hands and seemingly oblivious to anything else that might be going on, lost in the world of music. Vetiver has always been a band head-over-heels in love with music, but their latest album, Thing of the Past, is truly an album for vinyl snobs, music junkies, record collectors, and anyone who could spend an entire rainy afternoon browsing through the racks at a used music store, flooded with memories of forgotten favorites and alive with the possibility of new discoveries. It’s an album of cover songs, and there are few bands better suited for such an endeavor than Vetiver– for of course, they’re not really a band at all, but a loose, rotating collective of friends and mutual aficionados, led by ringleader Andy Cabic, and it isn’t ego or ambition that brings them together, but simply their shared love for music.

And that’s certainly the unifying force behind Thing of the Past, an album that feels like it was born out of an afternoon spent sorting through album collections and gushing about favorite recordings. And by the sounds of things, these guys have some pretty deep collections; nothing here is a standard, and in fact most are songs you’ve probably never heard before. Loudon Wainwright III is represented, and he’s arguably the most famous name here. The rest of the songs span the back alleys and dusty shelves of country, rock, folk, and R&B, including little-known gems by Bobby Charles, Elyse Weinberg, Garland Jeffrey, Townes van Zandt, Hawkwind… it’s like an alternate telling of the history of American song, told not by the superstars but by the also-rans.

And under Cabic’s leadership, Thing of the Past becomes an album fit to join that rarified company of covers albums that function as major statements of creativity and purpose. By rattling through their basement record collections and putting new spins on these songs, Vetiver reveals themselves to be a group of remarkable grace, craft, and inspiration. They’re able to treat all of music history as one, which makes the music sound timeless; they imbue their sound with the same rustic qualities as The Band, but they’re also able to tap into some of the trends of indie rock, echoing Beach House’s enveloping warmth and Fleet Foxes‘ modest focus on melody. Best of all, the album feels very much like a piece, not just a collection of odds and ends; though the group incorporates rock, country, pop, folk, and gospel into their sound, ushering in a surprising array of moods and textures, the album as a whole is marked by a warm, inviting tone that makes the music equally appealing for late-night listening or for lazy Saturday afternoons. And considering what a loose, ragtag collection of musicians it is, Vetiver does an impressive job of making these songs sound like they were meant to occupy space on the same album.

Because the record is focused on the simple pleasures of melody and lyric, and because the mood is fairly subdued and unhurried, it’s initially easy to write it off as a minor work, but that’s part of the beauty of this recording– it reveals its charms slowly, over repeated plays, and quickly proves to be an addictive listen. Ultimately, every track reveals itself to have charms all its own. There’s the pensive opener, Weinberg’s “Houses,” in which Sanders Trippe proves himself more than capable of placing his own stamp on the ragged guitar solos, originally played by Neil Young. The virtually unheard of songwriter Dia Joyce wrote “Sleep a Million Years,” an elegant and achingly beautiful piano piece that is sung here by Vetiver’s friend and former tourmate, Vashti Bunyan. Norman Greenbaum, most famous for the acid-rock favorite “Spirit in the Sky,” is represented by a simply delightful, agreebly old-timey sing-along called “Hook and Ladder.” Garland Jeffrey’s “Lon Chaney” is turned into a haunting, spectral country song, played on little more than piano and violin. Hawkwind’s “Hurry on Sundown” is both the strangest and the most energetic tune here, a bizarre, boozed-out and bluesy stomp with searing harmonica work. Van Zandt’s “Standin'” is played as a joyfully upbeat country number, and Charles’ classic “I Must Be in a Good Place Now” closes the album on a languid, lazily contented note. As for Wainwright, his “The Swimming Song” is played as straightforward folk-pop.

Every song here works, and they add up to an album of considerable virtues. This is an album that demonstrates many of the best qualities of American music, and charts its own trajectory through the country’s rich musical history. It’s an album of old gems that’s played with vitality and vibrancy, alive and in the moment. And most of all, it’s an album proving that the past is a well of endless inspiration even in the present, and that old sounds and songs can be as vivid now as ever before. As a covers album by a rock band, it is without very many competitors, and as a statement of creativity and vision, it’s definitive proof that Vetiver deserves to have their own music added to the canon, or at least kept alive with the kind of affection and warmth they themselves bring to these forgotten treasures.

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