San Francisco’s Vetiver Serves Up Fresh, Original Folk-Rock

28 Apr

Vetiver was formed in San Francisco in the early 2000s. Headed by singer-songwriter, Andy Cabic, Vetiver has been known for its folk-rock or freak-folk, and has released six full-length albums since its self-titled debut in 2004.

The band’s latest release is Complete Strangers. For some reason, the album has received mixed reviews. I’m not sure why. The songwriting is excellent. The musicianship is accomplished. The album shows growth by the band, incorporating some lighter-than-air jazzy elements and making good use of the synthesizer at times. And there’s no sense that the songs all sound the same — they’re connected, but certainly not repetitive.

Industry beacon, Pitchfork, labels the music “indecisive” and “equivocal.” But I’m not sure what the reviewer was waiting for Cabic to decide.

The songs on Complete Strangers provide commentary on modern life without drawing conclusions. They trace the lives of people who are doing their best in the face of confusing and often troubling circumstances, with an understanding that no song is going to solve their problems. As Cabic observes the characters in his compositions, he learns — and we learn — about life. And while the solutions may not be obvious, the lessons learned are valuable.

The musical styles on this album also vary — from a bit like The War on Drugs or Tom Petty, to Paul Simon or even Jack Johnson at times. But that doesn’t make the work derivative. These are just pegs to hang the songs on. Vetiver’s songwriting and arrangements are fresh and original, while being immediately familiar and comfortable like your favorite chair.

The first track, “Stranger Still,” is an amazing 7-minute opener. Sparkling synths, multi-layered rhythms and a steady drum kit give it a playful, wistful feeling. Cabic doesn’t start singing for a minute and a half, and his gentle lyrics provide insight into the human condition.

“Current Carry” is the first single released from the album. It’s a light and breezy tune with reassuring vocals, a steel guitar and a prominent bass line. This is one that could easily be performed by Jack Johnson.

“Loose Ends” is great jangle indie rock. There’s a lot of energy to the number, and some nice folk-rock guitar work to support vocals that are reminiscent of The War on Drugs or Tom Petty.

“Edgar” is what I like to refer to as a storytelling song. Cabic’s narrative is about someone who’s “Young and wild/Wasn’t all that wise/Had a lot to learn/Couldn’t help but wonder /What’ll Edgar do?” The melody is lilting and uplifting, with a simple clocklike beat thumping along. A small orchestra joins as the 6-minute tune progresses, making it almost chamber pop toward the end.

The key takeaway is: while some of the leading online music publications may have been not too kind to Complete Strangers — it’s a very enjoyable album. No wonder the listener scores are consistently above those of the critics. Don’t miss this one!

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