Album Review: The Staves and yMusic – The Way is Read

By on Wednesday, 13th December 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

The Way is Read coverIf you’re a longtime reader of TGTF, you’re surely familiar with Watford folk trio The Staves. Known offstage as Emily, Camilla and Jessica Staveley-Taylor, these close-knit sisters and their signature vocal harmonies have been featured here often over the past several years. You might be less familiar with their recent collaborators, New York instrumental ensemble yMusic, comprising violinist Rob Moose, violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Gabriel Cabezas, clarinettist Hideki Aomori, flautist Alex Sopp, and trumpeter CJ Camerieri.

yMusic have made a name for themselves by consciously overstepping the artistic boundary between classical and pop music, on projects with Ben Folds, José González and Son Lux, to name but a few. On their new album ‘The Way is Read’, The Staves and yMusic have added traditional vocal harmonies to the modern classical palette, crafting an opus beyond the simple confines of orchestrally-arranged folk songs.

Commissioned by Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival as a live performance piece, ‘The Way is Read’ was never intended to be a simple project. “Our aim from the outset was to truly collaborate with yMusic,” says Emily Staveley-Taylor. “We wanted to feel like instruments and join in with some of yMusic’s existing work, using our voices in ways we hadn’t previously explored. We chopped up compositions and put them together again in new ways. We took old folk songs and made them abstract.” yMusic’s Rob Moose continues: “It was as much a thrill to hear songs emerge organically over sections of intricate chamber music as it was satisfying to strip songs of the instrument that created them, whether guitar or piano, in order to craft new connective tissue.”

‘The Way is Read’ represents the first time an Eaux Claires collaboration has resulted in a full studio recording. The album is truly a large scale orchestral work, rather than a set of  discrete songs. Its individual tracks meld into each another without pause, continuously evolving both the musical ideas and the thematic concepts. Still, some the tracks work as standalone pieces and have been individually released. Following the kaleidoscopic harmony vocals of ‘Hopeless’ and the dramatic instrumental intro to ‘Take Me Home’, the gentle introspection of ‘Trouble on My Mind’ is more lyrically substantial, though hardly concrete in its narrative. It begins with the repeated title line and evolves to a chilling end: “and you know it when it holds you under a wave / cold and dying / moving in reverse, slow motion.”

The cinematic ‘All My Life’ evokes a crisp, cold winter scene, mingling sensory effects both in its lyrics (“never known the heaven in night / or the sound of the Northern Lights”) and in its dark harmonic twists. By contrast, ‘Silent Side’ is calmer and more tranquil, its refrain “you are my silent side” serving as a panacea to the album’s pervasive chill. ‘Courting is a Pleasure’ and ‘Sprig of Thyme’ are traditionally structured folk songs with fuller narratives. The former is dark and dirge-like, contrasting the pleasure of new love with the unstated pain of its inevitable end. The latter uses a clever play on words to illustrate the same idea: “time is a precious thing / and time it will go on / and time will bring all things to an end / and so does my thyme grow on”.

Eponymous and final track ‘The Way is Read’ takes a markedly sprightly tempo, juxtaposing vocal interplay and sharp instrumental counterpoint. It rounds off the record with reference to its established lyrical themes: “sailors on a frozen sea . . . under the starry sight / under the wayward night / under the Northern Lights.” The usually warm vocal harmonies of the Staveley-Taylor sisters take an ominous and icy tone here, in the context of yMusic’s sharp, wintry instrumental mix.

Though commissioned for a summer music festival, ‘The Way is Read’ is a perfect soundtrack for the cold winter days of December. Produced by Rob Moose and Jessica Stavely-Taylor, the album is available now on Nonesuch Records. The Staves and yMusic will perform on Minnesota Public Radio’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ on the 16th of December.

8/10

TGTF’s extensive previous coverage of The Staves is right through here, and our previous writing on yMusic can be found here.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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