Artist: Deas Vail
Album: White Lights EP
In Brief: An excellent appetite-whetter for the group’s second full-length album.
Deas Vail went from “Never heard of ’em” to one of my personal A-list artists alarmingly quickly last summer. I couldn’t help but fall head over heels for the band’s glistening, imaginative, and sometimes complex brand of piano-laden rock music. Their full-length debut All the Houses Look the Same seemed to have pretty much everything I wanted out of an album – delicious, layered vocals, inventive guitar and drum parts, just the right amount of keyboard gloss without losing the “live band” feel, a long enough track listing to feel like I could “get lost” in the album, but not so long that it felt like the band was grasping at straws or repeating themselves. As far as I was concerned, they could use the same template all over again for their second album and I wouldn’t mind. Because “predictable”, for these guys, seemed to involve doing something unpredictable – certainly not in stretching-the-boundaries-of-music-itself ways, but definitely in the sense that a song could turn a lot of unexpected corners and not give away how it was going to end based on how it started, and yet still be cohesive and beautiful and easy to recall and want to hear again. I didn’t expect new material from them any time soon, though, so when a new EP snuck on me in the summer of 2008, I was way beyond delighted.
The band’s latest collection of 5 songs, the appetizer which presumably precedes their second album due out in 2009, is called White Lights. It’s more or less the kind of progression I would have expected for the band – a little rockier here, a little more experimental there, but bearing the same unmistakably beautiful sound that they carved out so well on their first album. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but nothing’s shockingly different about these guys (and gal) here. One might consider it a collection of really good B-sides, most of which are more than good enough to have fit in on All the Houses. The knack for inventive arrangements is still there, as is the energetic driving and the vocal synergy of the husband-and-wife team who head up the band. The oblique spiritual references are still there (we’d expect no less from a band whose name translated to “God’s humble servant”), but still don’t play to obvious Christian radio expectations, leaving most of their material wide open to the listener’s interpretation. Really, if there’s one drawback here, it’s only that they didn’t quite manage to approach the arresting urgency of “A Lover’s Charm” or the engrossing serenity of “Shoreline”, two of the most dauntingly lovely tracks from their debut. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. These guys are still bringing their A-game on an EP that only barely misses out on a five-star rating due to a song or two that might perhaps delay the gratification a little more than I’d normally prefer.
You’ve seen the stars, here’s your troubles ending
A million miles from here, will they disappear
A galaxy of excuses far away…
The first track – an underground hit lying in wait if ever I’ve heard one – excels at dropping things into an aggressive rock song that really shouldn’t be there – strings and falsetto vocals and Laura Blaylock‘s pretty bells and the like. If this seems like the norm for Deas Vail, then get a load of that chorus, which finds Wes Blaylock taking a more aggressive approach than you’d usually expect from his delicate voice. It’s a swirling menace of a song that rushes by with a great amount of force, taking a sort of confrontational approach with an individual who who has apparently gone into hiding or otherwise abandoned a relationship. The frantic strings bring it to a striking climax in which the guitars and drums put an exclamation point on the end of the song, which then fizzles out into a brief bout of feedback that collides with the next track.
2. White Lights
She’s dropping bread crumbs to show us she’s been
To a house made of candy, of sorrow, of sin
And she hopes it’s alright that she quietly let herself in…
Kind of weird to have the EP’s title track second, but I suppose that helps to reinforce the notion that this is a collection of five new songs meant to be taken as equals, rather than just a single song that the band believes in strongly and then a bunch of scattered B-sides and remixes and whatnots. This is more of a gritty, guitar-driven track, one which still plays the “shifting time signature” game that several of the debut album’s tracks played, by way of a chorus that jumps out of the song’s usual 6/8 rhythm to deliver a few pointed lines (Blaylock is close to shouting here, which is weird compared to his usual vocal style, but it kind of works) before resolving back to the song’s initial rhythm with the energetic declaration, “She’s got WHITE LIGHTS on her face! From the BAD DAYS that she just can’t erase!” The girl on the album cover appears to be this song’s protagonist, with the “white lights” apparently representing some sort of past hurts or sins that have been wiped away and replaced with forgiveness and healing. I like how the band is able to explore this redemptive metaphor without couching it in the usual, more obvious Christian-ese terms – my description doesn’t really do it justice.
3. Last Place
Maybe it’s time for that stage in our lives
Let’s be honest
And more than our pride is our need to survive
So let’s choose this…
This one feels like a lush, mid-tempo piano ballad at first, and it’s certainly a laid-back change of pace after the previous two rockers. It’s a contemplative piece that obliquely discusses pride and attempts to poetically explore the Bible’s assertion, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last”. And it does so beautifully until the band makes the baffling decision to let Kelsey Harrelson‘s intricate percussion completely sit out the first chorus, and remain resigned to a delicate buildup during the second chorus that refuses to give away the rhythmic pattern that the band is following. The music theory geek in me appreciates the subtle approach here that intentionally throws the listener off from what was actually a 4/4 rhythm all along, but before you’ve sniffed out the pattern, the chorus is an extremely frustrating thing to listen to, seeming to wander off into a rhythmic dead end by switching from one note to the next whenever it pleases. It’s the kind of song that would definitely take precision to reproduce live without the band losing their place, but I have to wonder if they weren’t trying too hard to be different with this one. Even knowing the song well, I find myself having to keep count in order to not miss a beat when singing along.
4. From Priests to Thieves
To open your eyes, and come back around
Or get on with your life, with your head in the clouds
It’s all for the best… is that just what we tell ourselves?
We still have our days… when will they end?
Track 4 is a lovely little breakup song that floats along with the aid of a string section and some tasty minor and major seventh chords. It retains a cointemplative mood but flows at a slightly quicker pace, occupying that weird no-man’s-land in between “upbeat” and “ballad” territory – I don’t know what to call it but I know that it’s a sad song that makes me happy. Wes and Laura’s vocal harmonies are unbelievable on the heart-breaking chorus, which is where Wes’s ponderings about a couple choosing to call it quit come to a head with the accusation, “I’m not coming back, it’s all your fault”. But the pronouns switch around for the second chorus, and this becomes, “You’re not coming back, it’s all my fault”. Finally, in the third chorus, after a little bit of guitar soloing from Andy Moore that intentionally slips off of the song’s otherwise fluid rhythm a few times, the blame is assigned to both parties. Sticking a “we” in there makes that same question that Wes has asked three times no less painful, though: “What have we done? What have we become?”
When we all move on, we’ll go back to the start
To when there was no law, and we could love
Without a fear of change
With the courage of kings…
This slower number closes out the EP in a rather deceptive manner – it feels way too simplistic and plodding at first, with the very basic percussion sort of reminding me of the second verse of “Shoreline”, without the rest of the song really matching that same level of beauty. I know Deas Vail too well to assume that they’d take the easy way out, and sure enough, they end up taking this song all over the map, with much louder huitars during the chorus, a lovely interlude of strings and bells bridging the chasm from the chorus to the second verse, and the pace quickening for the second verse without disrupting the overall mood of the song. This one’s a grower, to be sure. The lyrics might be Deas Vail’s most compact depiction of their faith in a song thus far – they express an inner thirst and a desire to be set free from the oppression of an imbalance between law and love. While the individual who quenches this thirst and provides this liberation is not named, it’s one of those things that is clear enough from context if you know where the band is coming from, and easy to think up your own interpretation for if you don’t: “You are the balance, you are the fold, you are the sails that bring me home”. After a few times through this simple refrain, the string section takes us out, fading off into the distance all too soon, reminding me of how cruel a format the EP can be.
At present, I believe this little morsel is a tour-only deal available at Deas Vail’s live shows, but it might be available in digital format from their website (or they can ship you a copy, though EPs this short tend to run you more in shipping than they’re worth these days, so I recommend the digital approach if you don’t see the band in person, which is something that I personally haven’t had the privilege of doing yet). It serves as a fine brief introduction to the band if you’re curious about the Deas Vail sound and don’t want to invest in a full-length album to get the gist of it – though I personally think that to listen to this and to not at least hit a few of the highlights on All the Houses while you’re at it would be criminal. In any event, White Lights is a worthwhile addition to this group’s all-too-brief discography, and it’s certainly left me on the edge of my seat waiting to see how they’ll round it out with a proper full-length follow-up in 2009.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
White Lights $1.50
Last Place $.50
From Priests to Thieves $2
Wes Blaylock: Lead vocals, keyboards
Laura Beth Hudson Blaylock: Keyboards, synth, backing vocals
Andy Moore: Guitars
Kelsey Harelson: Drums
Jonathan Childs: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.