Vetiver: “Tight Knit”
It’s always a tricky thing when a well-received indie band strikes out for major labeldom, and it’s not exaggerating to say that the first record for a big-name imprint can make or break a young band. On the one hand, there is the increased budget and bigger marketing push, providng both a bigger platform and greater incentive to reach out to a broader audience; at the same time, however, there is the desire to appease the dedicated followers who got you to the major label in the first place, and who are probably a bit wary that a bigger label will only increase the temptation for you to sell out. You’ve got to keep the old fans happy, but make some new ones, as well.
The move to a bigger label couldn’t have come at a stranger time for Andy Cabic and his rotating troupe of musicians, collectively known as Vetiver. The band strikes out with Tight Knit, their first album for Sub Pop– the label of choice for rising indie stars– on the heels of Thing of the Past, their all-covers set from 2008. Ironically, this was the album that found Cabic achieving his greatest level yet of critical and creative success, broadening Vetiver’s acoustic-based sound and taking it in several new directions while also providing a much-needed shot of energy and a clear artistic vision– but all that means that the task lying before them with Tight Knit is even more dauting, as they not only have to adjust to the bigger label, but also to reassert their powers with original material after the collection of covers.
In the hands of any other band, this scenario might beg for boldness, but that’s not exactly Vetiver’s specialty; known rather for their subtlty and quiet restraint, Vetiver has made an appropriately tight, concise ten-song record that shows them assimilating the lessons learned from Thing of the Past into their own warm, familiar style, quietly but confidently asserting their identity as a band and Cabic’s skills as a songwriter and broadening their scope just enough to show that the covers album wasn’t just a lark, but a step in their artistic growth, while also reaching out to new fans with a record that’s easy to warm up to but unassuming enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s a sellout. And really, unassuming has always been the best way to summarize Vetiver’s peculiar talents; though they’ve sometimes been unfairly saddled with the “freak folk” label, there’s nothing particularly freaky about them. Cabic trades in gentle, sparse tunes that offer a laid-back, mellow vibe while borrowing from folk and rock traditions, but beyond their modesty and solemnity, there’s nothing particularly unorthodox or hip about the band’s methods.
And maybe that’s why Thing of the Past was their best record yet, and why Tight Knit is a worthy, if slightly less gripping, follow-up; working with a batch of old, mostly quite obscure songs running the gamut of rock, folk, country and blues while also flirting with quirky humor and ocassional flashes of bristling energy, the all-covers Vetiver proved to be a much more versatile and interesting creature than previously suspected. And if Tight Knit isn’t nearly as strange or diverse, it does show that Cabic is a skilled and self-assured musician more than capable of taking the lessons learned from the time spent with those old songs and applying them to his own new material. As a result, Tight Knit is as subtle and intricately-crafted as an Vetiver album yet, which means that it’s not exactly the bold statement of purpose or identity that a label debut might call for, but it reveals its charms on repeated listens and gradually opens itself up to be a rich and rewarding album, and, in its own humble way, a strong assertion of who Vetiver is.
The album’s spartan arrangements– many songs feature little or nothing more than acoustic guitar and light percussion– are deceptive; while it may sound at first like a singer-songwriter folk album, it eventually becomes clear that Cabic has drawn other styles and influences into his compositions, no doubt the result of the time spent pawing through old LPs in preparation for making Thing of the Past. Thus, with its gentle but steady pulse and carefree tone, “Everyday” isn’t a folk song so much as a pure pop ditty, while “On the Other Side” finds touchstones in country and blues. And in the final stretch, the album throws some even greater surprises; “More of This” is a lightly bopping pop/rock singalong with an uncommonly driving energy, while the rock-steady thump and funky brass of “Another Reason to Go” place it somewhere in the R&B tradition. And “Strictly Rule,” with its spaced-out electric guitar, sounds like a mellow, chillout rock and roll piece– the most psychadelic Vetiver tune yet.
Meanwhile, Cabic’s songwriting grows increasingly metaphysical. Absorbing the songs from so many masterful songwriters has given him a handle on how to be universal and idiosyncratic at the same time, and here he deals with love and the passage of time in broad, almost philosophical strokes. Opener “Rolling Sea” is a prime example, as Cabic sings of the waves of time sweeping everything- “the past” and everyone included– into its undertow. And his best love songs sound like they could be unearthed pop gems from the 1960s, their breezy demeanor belying the surprisingly dark emotional undertones.
But more than anything, Tight Knit serves as a reminder of how lucky we are to have a group like Vetiver. In our chaotic, ever-Twittering world, Andy Cabic and his cohorts make music that requires you to slow down, to reflect, to listen with patient ears and an open mind. They’re like an oasis of quiet simplicity and beauty, and the rewards they offer aren’t exactly flashy or complicated, but they are unquestionably good for the mind and the soul. Come to think of it, maybe this is the ideal label debut from Vetiver, because it reminds us that they’re not about serving their image or their career– they’re simply about the songs, and that’s something to be thankful for.