The Staves’ Latest Album an Unexpected Folk Feast

10 Jul

The Staves are a trio of acoustic folk-singing sisters: Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor. Jessica also plays guitar, while Camilla plays the ukulele and drums. They’ve been part of the indie music scene in their native England since around 2010, when they emerged from performances at open mic nights and in local pubs, and started recording and touring.

Early on, many of their performances and appearances were in support of other artists — from Tom Jones to Fionn Regan and Bon Iver. But the Staves also released a series of EPs, and finally in late 2012, their first full-length album, Dead & Born & Grown. At the time, it was received somewhat tepidly — critics liked it, but many felt that it followed a relatively tried-and-true folk formula.

Well, no more. If I Was, their latest release, is a fresh take on the folk genre. Produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver in his infamous cabin in Wisconsin, the folk music takes flight — with complex structures and creative layering. There are the breathtaking harmonies of the perfectly matched sisterly vocals, compelling lyrics, imaginative instrumentation, and wonderful production values.

While many folk albums — even ones that have received wide acclaim from NPR or other reviewers — seem to be a collection of largely indistinguishable melodies, If I Was offers many selections that are true standouts.

“Blood I Bled” starts as a gentle medieval muse about a failed relationship, with only a ukulele backing the clear, crisp lead vocals. Then, about the 1:20 mark, rolling drums and brass are added to create an urgency not common to folk arrangements. At 3:15, the song shifts again. The weight has been removed, the orchestra swells and the angelic harmonies reach for the sky in an expression of, if not relief, acceptance. Only four minutes long, it’s an amazing start to the album.

Track 3, “No Me, No You, No More” showcases how the sisters voices blend together to create such rich harmonies. The vocals aren’t a capella — they’re backed with tones consisting of the sisters’ sampled hums, looped at two different pitches, as well as brass and orchestra at times. But even with this, those harmonies shimmer like an exquisite church choir. A guitar chord is played just before the end, setting up the beautiful “Let Me Down,” which follows.

“Damn It All” is the longest song on the album at nearly 6 1/2 minutes. Building to an initial climax at around three minutes, the sisters sing resignedly and repeatedly, “Even though I love you/I want you to go.” Then, a steady pulse of scratchy, strumming guitars emerge as the vocals protest, “Oh well, damn it all/I don’t want it all.”

Skipping ahead to second to the last track on the album, “Make It Holy,” features a counterpoint of delicately sung vocals, sometimes in rounds, backed by fingerpicked guitar and march-like drums.

There’s more too. Over and over, the melodies and arrangements seem unexpected and fresh and original — something you can listen to, again and again. Even if folk isn’t typically something you gravitate to, If I Was by the Staves is an album you should hear.

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