Graded on a Curve: Vetiver,
Up on High

Led by singer-songwriter Andy Cabic, Vetiver has been at it for well over fifteen years, with new album Up on High the outfit’s seventh full-length. The sound is rooted in folk-rock, though these fresh ten selections expand the template with touches of soft rock, college rock, indie rock, and classic rock intermittently nodding toward country rock. All these elements might suggest a patchwork if not a hodgepodge, but the disc is a focused affair, and if easygoing it avoids faltering into the overzealously mellow. It’s out November 1 through Mama Bird Recording Co.

I’ve mentioned it before in this space regarding other artists, but my first taste of Vetiver came via 2004’s The Golden Apples of the Sun, the limited-edition (1,000 copies) Devendra Banhart-compiled CD made available through the Arthur magazine imprint Bastet. A decidedly freak-folky excursion with numerous intermingled strands of New Weird Americana, Vetiver’s “Angel’s Share” opened the set, and due to its curator’s strong taste, the comp remains one of best examples of the field’s consistency and breadth.

Flash forward to 2005 and Vetiver were found on the CD included with the literary periodical The Believer’s annual music issue, then in its second year. The amount of overlap between that covers-themed disc and The Golden Apples of the Sun was considerable; along with Vetiver, who delivered a sweet version of Michael Hurley’s “Be Kind to Me,” there was CocoRosie, Josephine Foster, Espers, and ol’ Devendra himself.

This reinforces the impact of the whole New Weird folk experience, but I mainly bring it up to highlight how Vetiver has endured while many others involved in that scene have long since drifted off the radar. With this said, I haven’t been the most diligent follower of Andy Cabic’s material after 2006’s To Find Me Gone (which came after the eponymous ’04 debut). There was Thing of the Past in ’08 for FatCat and two after that for Sub Pop, Tight Knit in ’09 and The Errant Charm in ’11, followed by Complete Strangers for Easy Sound in ’15.

So, I come to Up on High not as a well-versed expert but as an old friend getting reacquainted, soaking up those changes and being generally impressed with the catching up. Opener “The Living End” flaunts bedrock folk action mingled with a sense of erudition that’s distinctly singer-songwriter. What’s nice is that Cabic resists becoming too sophisto even as he flirts a little with soft rock (though the appealing heft of the instrumental portion complicates this association somewhat).

The opening strum of “To Who Knows Where” reminds me quite a bit of early ’70s Neil Young, though it doesn’t take long for Cabic to move beyond this comparison, in large part through vocals that hit a fine middle ground between sturdy and smooth. “Swaying” picks up the tempo and jangles up a storm, in the process fully delivering on Cabic’s stated homage to R.E.M. and The Feelies.

That it’s something far more vital than a mere imitation is strengthened by “All We Could Want,” a crisp guitar workout that’s as country as it is collegiate and as funky as it is folky. “Hold Tight” raises the groove quotient and adds some electric keyboard for good measure, with the results substantially late ’70s in comportment, like a silk shirt unbuttoned halfway down.

“Wanted, Never Asked” jumps with both feet into the 21st century, resonating like a blend of The Shins and Wilco, and that’s alright. “A Door Shuts Quick” adjusts this scenario by heightening the prettiness, though it stays in the same era of indie; a little subtly applied pedal steel points to the instrument’s more prominent placement in Up on High’s late tracks, such as the accenting and the full-on solo spot in “Filigree,” which combines the established indie feel with a thread of ’70s folk-rock a la America (though it’s better than that might sound).

The penultimate title track takes a journey through indie-folk’s milder regions. As it progresses, it becomes increasingly ’70s singer-songwriter-like and with an added country tinge. It leads into “Lost (In Your Eyes),” a tune so stepped in ’70s soft rock-isms (the title is indictive) that I initially suspected it was a cover. Nope. It brings Up on High to a fitting close. If not mind-blowing, the tunes are largely satisfying, and should please folks into the crosspollinations detailed above.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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