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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.

 

In the Post #144: José González shares an alternative version of ‘Open Book’, a collaboration with yMusic

 
By on Monday, 1st June 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

José González hit widespread public consciousness with his 2003 UK platinum début ‘Veneer’; his sparse combination of nylon-string fingerpicking and somnolent voice proved one of the highlights of the year and was heard on innumerable TV, film and advert soundtracks. 2007’s ‘In Our Nature’ passed with far less fanfare, despite being arguably the more interesting record, introducing more percussive textures and channelling Nick Drake, Ben Harper, and, in a hair-shirt version of ‘Teardrop’, Massive Attack. Never one prone to prolificity, a tardy 8 years later González returned in February with ‘Vestiges & Claws’, from which ‘Open Book’ is the third single to be drawn.

The version we feature here is a B-side to the album version (remind me how B-sides work in the digital age?), enhanced by a modest orchestral arrangement by New York’s pop-classical musicians-for-hire yMusic. The album version is the usual bare González guitar and vocal affair, but here we have strings and a lovely bit of clarinet and flute interplay, resulting in a much richer listen. The only mystery is why one would bother with the original version at all. Surely if there’s anything González needs to do after three bites of the cherry is to break the mould of his sound a bit, and experiment with new ways of presenting his admittedly strong songs. This version of ‘Open Book’ is a modest step in the right direction.

Also here we’re spared the bizarre original video, which sees González umbilically attached to a man-sized worm that he carries around in a giant wooden case. He cares for the ungrateful annelid, tolerating its futile thrashing, even when it spills his drink of iced Swedish cider and keeps him awake at night. He does allow it to provide the song’s whistled solo, so it’s not entirely without virtue. Whilst the visuals are indeed metaphorically congruous with the album’s reference to ‘Vestiges…’ and the song’s gentle plaints of love and loss, the creature is alternately repulsive and laughable, so it’s not an easy watch. Far better to settle back with the simple pencil drawing of the enhanced yMusic version, perhaps with a refreshing beverage. As long as there’s not a giant worm around to spill it.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziMDx5eutU0[/youtube]

 
 
 

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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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