October 29, 2005

Espers "The Weed Tree"

Releasing a covers record can be a risky proposition, more often than not with mixed results. Like most folk artists, the Philadelphia trio Espers, which consists of Meg Baird, Brook Sietinsons and Greg Weeks, would often slip in a cover or two, just to make things interesting for the audience, as well as to pay homage to their influences. So they decided to take a little creative variation during the downtime while working on the follow-up to their critically lauded self-titled debut. They decided to record a handful of their more popular covers, as a treat for their fans--and who can blame them?

Thus was born The Weed Tree, and it was good. Their cover choices can best be described as "diverse," because it stretches from metal to post-punk to traditional folk to the indescribable category we call Nico. As one would expect, "Rosemary Lane" and "Black Is The Color" are traditional folk numbers, and the band perform these two songs with the gentle reverence that comes with the respect of the tradition. "Black Is The Color" is made beautifully mournful by the gentle yet subtle use of cello and quiet, twinkling chimes. "Blue Mountain," by Michael Hurley, is the only "folk" number of the remaining covers, but they don't hold the song to any traditional arrangement; the song starts out brooding, a distant whistler is overshadowed by some rather ominous strings and shakers--and some goregous singing from Weeks. The song then gets a bit weirder, with swirling psychedelic effects that crescendo to a quietly loud and gently noisy freakout.

The other three songs are a bit more varied in their origins. "Tomorrow," originally by Durutti Column, was one of Vini Reilly's better numbers; and Espers' take on it doesn't attempt to replicate his distinctive guitar work or his small, sensitive voice. Instead, they double up the vocals and follow his guitar lines with a cello and wind instruments, with gentle beating drum and shakers. (In an interesting twist, the combination of shakers and guitar sounds not unlike a drum machine.) "Afraid" is a Nico cover, and it's rather touching; Nico's distinctive singing has been replaced by a young, innocent voice--making the song even more haunting. (I thought Mercury Rev's cover from earlier this year was the definitive interpretation. I was wrong.) The final cover is of Blue Öyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths." It's an amazing epic of a cover, one that starts out pretty, but gets progressively heavier and harder and louder and climaxes nine minutes later. After hearing five gentle songs, to hear them suddenly grow hard and loud is a bit of a shock. A very nice shock.

The Weed Tree ends with "Dead King," a new Espers track. It's a great way to end a covers record, as it leaves the listener wanting more. The song is lovely, and after hearing six interpretations of songs by the band's influences, it's easy to understand the direction the band's songwriting comes from--and where it's going. The Weed Tree is a nice introduction for those who've yet to hear them, and a wonderful treat for those hungry for more.

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.espers.org
Label Website: http://www.locustmusic.com

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