In Brief: It hurts to give a favorite band an average review, but there are several moments on this album where I’m tempted to call them “Running Out of Ideas Vail.”
Once again I’ve got a slight bummer of a job to do, as I find myself prepared to report that the latest work of a band I once raved about is clocking in at merely above average. It’s the kind of review I hate having to write – better news than a drastic turn toward one or two-star failure, I guess, but then my scathing reviews of truly bad albums can be more fun to compose than the those for the merely middling ones. When a new batch of songs just turns out to be somewhere in the vaguely pleasant, but ultimately forgettable, region between “awesome” and “putrid”, it can be hard to find interesting things to say about the individual songs (whether positive or negative) to give weight to the indifference that I’m feeling. It honestly took me a while to realize that Deas Vail‘s new self-titled album fell into this category, since they’re a group I’ve always been excited to hear new stuff from, they were keen enough to put one of their most striking songs right up front, and the aspects of their past albums that I’ve come to love have generally revealed themselves slowly. I needed a few months to sit with this one, assuming it would grow on me, before I slowly realized that most of it would not.
Deas Vail is a band that most of you have probably never heard of (outside of my past raving, anyway), so I’ll start from scratch and give you the short version. They’re a keyboard-based indie rock band from Russellville, Arkansas, with their main calling cards being the high-pitched falsetto of lead singer Wes Blaylock, the keyboards and lovely backing vocals of his wife Laura Beth Blaylock, and the often intricate percussion rhythms that drove their songs. Their output ranges from poppy to perplexing, and on many occasions it can be quite stunningly beautiful. See “Shoreline” and “A Lover’s Charm”, the stunning apex of the band’s debut album All the Houses Look the Same, for proof of this, or the almost equally gripping one-two punch of “Cages” and “Birds” on their follow-up, quite appropriately titled Birds & Cages to draw attention to the tracks that most warranted it. Both albums (particularly the first one) were among my most played toward the end of the last decade, and I figured that the extra exposure they managed to get with Relient K taking the band under their wing, and a tour with Owl City, couldn’t have hurt anything. When a third, self-titled album was announced in 2011, I figured this would be the band putting their best foot forward, announcing to the wider world, “Here’s a primer of who we are and what sort of beautiful sounds we know how to make”, while simultaneously showing their fans that they weren’t afraid to branch out in a few new directions.
I wasn’t really correct on either count. Deas Vail represents a streamlining of their sound rather than an expansion, and for all intents and purposes, it’s a fairly straightforward contemporary rock album. The tunes are as breezy as ever, plus a few of the slower brooding ones that found a welcome place on their past albums. But the piano-based grandeur is largely gone. A much greater emphasis is placed on lead and rhythm guitar, and with this being Deas Vail, it’s more often shimmery than it is loud or heavy, even when playing more traditional riffs on compact pop songs. None of this is inherently bad – it’s always been the guaranteed minimum for me to get out of one of their songs. But the more distinctive elements that made Deas Vail shine – the intricate rhythms and the gorgeous interplay between Wes and Laura – are largely missing. From track two on, I often find myself wondering if Laura is even still a full-time member of the band. I guess you can hear her in the background, but she never really rises to prominence, which is a shame compared to how beautifully the two intertwine on one heck of a misleading opening track. I’m all for letting everyone in the band shine, but it doesn’t feel like Deas Vail is playing to its own strengths any more.
Lyrics are hit and miss here, too. I can’t point out any inherently bad ones, but the vast majority of All the Houses made me feel something as I delved into their stories of love and loneliness and self-worth. Birds & Cages may have even improved on that part of their formula. Here, I’m largely kept at a distance, maybe because one too many songs plod along without distinctive hooks or fascinating crescendoes, or maybe because the group is actually running out of ideas. As a consequence, I can’t see a likely single release from this album that would make anyone in the indie or mainstream rock scene really stand up and take notice. No one would really say these guys suck, either (unless you’re just diametrically opposed to the idea of a rock band having a really effeminate singer, in which case you probably just have some machismo issues to work out or something), but mostly that’s just because I can’t see people being driven to say much about them at all. They’re still one of my favorite bands. I still know their potential and I love ’em for trying. But this just isn’t the type of album that I think will inspire a passionate new group of fans to get on board.
I had such a good impression of the first track that, based on this and past experience with the band, I was willing to buy the album on the strength of this song alone. It’s a unique and creative song for Deas Vail that far outstrips anything else on the album. Justin Froning‘s dark bass starts it off, laying out an unusual rhythm of 6/4 that persists throughout the song, and while the falsetto humming you hear at the beginning is definitely Wes, it’s Laura who actually sings the first lyrics: “I don’t know what love is/The truth is that I don’t know, to be honest/It’s possible.” The lead vocal cuts from her to Wes: “I don’t want to turn away/I don’t want to be afraid/I want you in every way/To come back the way you came.” Each then repeats their simple verse, fully intertwined with the other, illuminating two sides of a relationship in which two people barely know what they’re doing. The chorus then rings out with the urgent excitement of young love: “Fire! Burning on desire!” This, in turn, eventually gets overlapped with the song’s bridge for an exciting conclusion. I’m a sucker for unusual vocal arrangements, and I love it when bands that have more than one singer find a way to fully utilize their vocalists to do more than just generic BGV’s, so this really gets me going. The problem with starting off so strong is that the album feels like a letdown afterwards. I love Wes and the rest of the band, but I’m bummed that Laura only has any real presence in this one song.
The more straightforward, single-friendly songs on Deas Vail albums can sometimes be the ones that take me longer to appreciate. But I can’t hold lack of intricacy against a song when it still qualifies as a strong pop song and it manages to provoke some thought. After listening more carefully to this one, I’d say it succeeds in both departments. It takes a little bit to feel like it’s doing more than coasting on a fairly quick rhythm and generic guitar chords, but fortunately drummer Wes Saunders and lead guitarist Andy Moore know how to really light it on fire by the time it gets to the chorus. Unlike the sort of nostalgia you might expect from a song called “Sixteen”, this one isn’t so much about the teenage years as it is about feeling like you’ve been reduced from a fully functional adult to a clueless teenager when true love turns out to be more difficult to maintain than you had initially expected. This contrasts with the burning desire from the previous song in that it emphasizes how these things take work and don’t happen automatically: “Love is taking what we have, baby, don’t let go now/Remember that it’s hard because it’s worthwhile/Loving isn’t always an open doorway/It’s giving up your heart in moments of faith.” The way Wes belts out the chorus is what really sells this one. It’s not an immediate attention-grabber, but like the sort of sturdy, long-lasting relationship it describes, it holds up well upon deeper examination.
3. Quiet Like Sirens
So I’m gonna be a bit of a hypocrite here and say that while intricate rhythms are usually Deas Vail’s strength, this song feels quite awkward for its attempt at one during the verse. I think it’s 12/8 or something, but it feels like it cuts from one chord to the next at an odd time, which throws me off balance in a way that I don’t think they were trying to. Another strong bass line is one of this song’s positive traits, as is a chorus which slowly builds up a sense of paranoia as Wes’s notes ascend. However, the shift to 4/4 time for that chorus just further illustrates how forced the verse is – it’s like slamming together pieces of two entirely different songs. The lyrics discuss fear and guilt, but since the music seems to stutter where it needs to shout, it doesn’t really maintain the sort of claustrophobic mood that it really needs to make those lyrics convincing. It’s not a bad song, just a bit of a clumsy oddity that comes far too early in the album. Deas Vail normally makes it much longer than this without a misfire.
4. Summer Forgets Me
I keep forgetting whether this song or “Sixteen” was the first single, or whether that even matters in a day and age where “single” usually means “Radio will ignore this anyway, but we’ll make a video and stick it on YouTube and end our concerts with it and hope for the best.” This one aims for the sort of nostalgia that “Sixteen” intentionally avoided, though it’s a sorrowful reflection, looking back on warmer days when the love of someone special felt like a guarantee. Now that person who was such a ray of sunshine has moved on, leaving our protagonist to figure out what went wrong. Does the personification of a woman as a season remind you of anything? Because I’m thinking these guys must have seen (500) Days of Summer and thought, “Gee, wish we could have been part of the soundtrack for that one.” Don’t get me wrong, it was a great film. And getting lost in nostalgia was one of its themes. But the music, which is more mid-tempo and mild-mannered than some of Deas Vail’s poppier songs, doesn’t give me a whole lot to work with that I would later find memorable. More prominent keyboard, or something besides the half-hearted, guitar-based jangle pop that they’re going for here, probably would have helped.
Now this one is just strange. I suppose it’s an instance of a band trying to stretch themselves, but I’ll admit that I’m definitely not used to Deas Vail doing slow, brooding songs that are heavy on the electric guitar. Andy Moore leads the way with a jagged, mournful guitar riff that sets the plodding pace for a ballad that feels fully confined, unable to break free from its shackles. I guess that’s kind of the point, but it brings the album to a screeching halt. It has the kind of lyric that makes me a bit nervous, coming from a band with a married couple at its core: “Our towers have become/The divorce of any love we know/Our friends become our foes.” Of course I’ve learned never to assume that the experiences described in a song are necessarily those of a songwriter, but still, it’s clear that someone feels trapped in a relationship and the way they’re describing it is too close for comfort. To be fair, the chorus does offer a sense of solidarity: “We’ll stand together, together/Tear our devils down”. Some group vocals even show up the last time around to help offer strength to that chorus, so that Wes isn’t belting it out all by his lonesome. Unfortunately none of that can save the song from its own sluggishness. There’s a subtle but pretty keyboard outro at the end, just to remind us that Laura’s still there, but she’s buried behind those imposing stone walls for most of the song. She needs a little more to do.
6. Pulling Down the Sun
Sometimes the mood of the music and the tone of the lyrics are so drastically dissonant that it’s easy to miss what a song is about. This isn’t always a bad thing, though in a case like this where the music is quite upbeat and just breezes on by, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that it’s one of the most depressing songs that this band has ever written. No matter how peppy the chorus, no matter how quickly the guitar and bass zig-zag about, no matter how high Wes reaches for those high falsetto notes, he’s still singing about the struggle to be anything more than a disappointment to someone whose respect clearly matters to him. It could be a parent, or it could be a romantic relationship where the tables have turned and now he’s the one who has to prove himself (the subtext seems to indicate that this was a role reversal from before, though I could be reading personal experience into it). I like some of the analogies here, like “cumulus demands”, as in they’re so sky-high no one could ever reach them. Even on your best days, the person treats you like you’re dragging down the sun itself, turning the weather from clear and sunny to grey and disappointing.
7. Bad Dreams
This one wants to be an easy-going, laid-back mid-tempo song, with its cheerier guitar tone and its gently bumping beat, but it fails to really register. Among the many problems here are a chorus which doesn’t even really function as a refrain – it shows up after the first verse and is then conspicuously absent in place of a rather unremarkable guitar solo after the second. The song then trails off into a slow, reflective bridge and never finds its way out. It just drags, all the way to the finish line. The lyrics are vague, not really evoking any emotions or strong images or anything that would make me want to quote them. To be fair, Laura’s synths are more prominent here, giving the song a bit of glittery, starry atmosphere. At one point I think I hear her trading off vocals with Wes in the second verse, but upon listening more closely, it’s actually all Wes. (It says something about his vocal range that I struggle to tell the difference sometimes.) None of this really helps to make the song interesting, though. It’s a weak introduction to the largely weak back half of the album.
8. Wake Up and Sleep
Sometimes peppy music and sad lyrics can work together beautifully – especially when the mood you’re trying to portray is one of detachment and denial. I feel like that explains the almost danceable rhythms and the stabs of old-school guitar that give the song a sense of warm nostalgia, similar to the work of Belle & Sebastian. This one’s got almost everything that excited me about the Deas Vail of old – cymbal fills covering all the sixteenth notes, a melody that swoops and dives in all the right places, and strong group vocals just where the emphasis is needed most… in this case, a bridge that serves as a wake-up call to a person walking through life like a zombie. One could still characterize the lyrics as “depressing”, but I think it’s more accurate to say that they’re about an actual depression, and the frustration of trying to love someone who can’t love themselves. How long does a person stick around to watch someone living life in that sort of a muted haze, only really awake and present long enough to eat and go to work and get the basic functions taken care of, but to never really engage themselves with another human being? That’s the dilemma that propels the song. And Wes wavers between the selfish and the altruistic, wondering whether he’s in it for her or just for his own gratification: “Is it really love if I take what I can get?” It’s a punch in the gut, and a rather catchy one at that.
9. Common Sense
Deas Vail goes acoustic? I feel like pretty much every band, regardless of their core genre, tries this sooner or later. In the case of a group whose strength lies in the ambiance of its songs and its ability to function tightly as a unit, this gives them a pretty severe handicap. Wes singing over a dry guitar strum really doesn’t cut it for me. It sounds like more of a demo than a fully-baked track worthy of a studio album. The song gains a few more layers farther in with subtle electric guitar, a tambourine, and Laura’s backing vocals, but there still isn’t much original or special about this “coffeehouse” configuration of the band. The lyrics bemoan chances not taken due to the desire to be wise and play it safe. Interesting enough subject for a song, but it all hinges on a rather weak punchline that depends on poor enunciation to make it sound clever: “It’s all for common sense/It’s awful common sense.” Nice try, but NO.
10. The Right Mistakes
Melodically, the opening of this one reminds me of “Quiet Like Sirens”. I’d be lying if I said this was the first time I had trouble telling a few Deas Vail songs apart – in the past they had a general sound that they did well, and they didn’t venture too far outside of it, so it could take a while for a less astute listener to tell which pretty hook they were remembering from which song. The advantage in the past was largely that the hooks were stronger – here the band feels like they’re an auto-pilot, which presents a problem opposite to that of “Quiet Like Sirens” in that they’re meekly marching ahead in plain old 4/4, medium tempo, not really breathing the life into the song that it deserves. Lyrically, it’s a step in the right direction that almost redeems “Common Sense” by giving it better context. Wes seems to want to pull someone out of their depression and encourage them to step outside of the sad norm that they’ve accepted for their own life. The words are very plainspoken, but deeply personal in their delivery: “I just want you to know what healing is/If you want we can start all over again.”
11. The Meaning of a Word
By far, this is the most minimalist thing I’ve ever heard the band do. It barely even qualifies as a “song”, since it’s just a single repeated mantra veiled behind the drone of a slow, sad, ambient guitar and keyboard melody. What works here is that Deas Vail pulls off the ambiance quite well – the music is repetitive and yet the tone of the guitar is icy, detached, methodical, with the keyboard’s stray notes matching its coldness. Occasional bursts of Morse code-like sound punctuate the atmosphere, giving me the image of someone trying to get a message through, but being trapped behind a thick wall of glass. The single line that Wes keeps repeating – “Is it the words or the voices?” – is buried behind all the other sounds, so faint that you need a lyric sheet to understand it. To me, it’s a sonic painting of what his voice sounds like from within the mind of the depressed person he’s calling out to. I like the idea more than I like the execution, because once I discovered that it was all the same thing repeating again and again, I sort of felt robbed of a song on an album that’s already lacking in standout tracks compared to the band’s previous work. Given better surroundings, I wouldn’t mind this at all as a reflective interlude leading into the album’s finale.
12. Meeting in Doorways
Unfortunately, we get a rather weak finale here. Almost as if to reprise “Desire”, they’ve adopted a 6/4 rhythm once again, but rather than gliding smoothly, it hits like a jackhammer due to how Wes Saunders punctuates it with the drums. It’s jarring coming after the previous track, and once again I feel like they’ve adopted an unusual rhythm just for the sake of it rather than because it fits the song. The verse doesn’t flow well at all. I had my issues with the previous album’s finales (“Atlantic” and “This Place Is Painted Red”), which seemed to have their own rhythmic issues at first, but which resolved themselves over time as I got the “hang” of them. I keep trying with this one, but I just can’t get into its awkward groove. It’s also a bit of a downer ending – not that I expect cheery happy at the end of an album that admits to having so many struggles with the true meaning of love, but it basically sounds like after all that, a couple is giving up and going their own separate ways. No matter how many sweet “ooh”s Wes puts into the chorus, it still comes across as rather flat and vague: “Love’s an unpredictable ghost/Sometimes gone the day you need it the most”. The title is a curiosity, since doorways are never mentioned in the song even though “Sixteen” had a reference to one. It feels like a missed opportunity to come full circle and close the album with a meaningful summation of the narrative that drives the entire thing.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Quiet Like Sirens $.75
Summer Forgets Me $.50
Pulling Down the Sun $1.25
Bad Dreams $.25
Wake Up and Sleep $1.50
Common Sense $0
The Right Mistakes $.50
The Meaning of a Word $.50
Meeting in Doorways $.25
Wes Blaylock: Lead vocals, keyboards
Laura Beth Blaylock: Piano, keyboards, synths, backing vocals
Andy Moore: Guitars
Justin Froning: Bass
Wes Saunders: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.