Vetiver

"Tight Knit" (Sub Pop) -- 4 STARS

The cover of “Tight Knit” shows a silhouetted woodland scene superimposed over a stylized circular star map, reflecting a new direction for Vetiver’s music. The band has always had the quality of a hushed guitar-strumming circle in a forest clearing, but after three albums and five years, Vetiver’s “Tight Knit” makes a conscious effort to progress beyond the delicate, relaxed sing-alongs of their freak-folk origins for a more exuberant tone and perky production.

Since Vetiver’s first appearance on the national stage in 2004­—when their song “Angel’s Share” kicked off the Devendra Banhart-curated compilation “Golden Apples of the Sun”­—they have released three albums built along the same formula: subdued acoustic guitar folk well-rooted in the imagery and atmosphere of the natural world. The instrumentation has been tweaked and new styles experimented with, but much of what has always made Vetiver a band worth listening to is the evocative and consistent tone of their music. With song titles such as “Down at El Rio” and “Arboretum” and a species of western Indian grass as their namesake, it is not surprising that the genre of their music is self-described as “Naturalismo.”

With “Tight Knit” Vetiver is leaving the dark, comfortable environs of the forest and setting off into the new territory of the night sky. The result is a less consistently redolent and distinctive but more exciting and sociable collection of songs than we have heard from Vetiver before. Bandleader and songwriter Andy Cabic plays all of the instruments on many of the tracks, and without any of the clearly discernible collaborations of previous Vetiver records—Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Hope Sandoval—“Tight Knit” comes across very much as the work of a single voice.

“Tight Knit” is Vetiver’s debut recording for Sub Pop, the luminary king of indie pop record labels and home to the Shins and Postal Service. This move from Cabic and Banhart’s own label Gnomonsong is evident in the production of the album, with a sound that is cleaner and more expansive than Vetiver’s previous recordings. The major label seems to serve Cabic well, and he takes advantage of this to expand the instrumentation and variety of his songs.

The album starts off with the aptly titled “Rolling Sea,” a sensitive fingerpicked ballad, decorated with piano and steel guitar, that would fit in on any previous Vetiver record. This is followed by “Sister,” a gentle appeal to a sibling “too young to be treated badly, too bored to be told.” It is a radical departure for Vetiver, with a rhythm section lifted straight out of a fifties R&B; crooner. Next is the winsome “Everyday,” which sounds positively twee. With its barred strumming, steel guitar and Cabic’s sunny “doo-doo-doos,” “Everyday” could be a lost Belle & Sebastian track. “Another Reason to Go” is infused with rigorous bass and a funky horn riff that would not be out of place in a James Brown swagger, and a drum machine even shows up in “On the Other Side.” Vetiver has always had a knack for merry rollicking romps—“Amour Fou” from their 2004 self-titled debut comes to mind—though in “Tight Knit” tracks like “Everyday” and “More of This” are infused with a more clearly articulated pop sensibility.

Cabic illuminated his influences on last year’s “Thing of the Past,” in which he offered covers of seminal but relatively recondite folk artists, from Loudon Wainwright and Townes van Zandt to Derroll Adams and Bobby Charles—artists that have inspired the direction his own music has taken. Listening to “Tight Knit,” however, one wonders if the conceit behind “Thing of the Past” wasn’t entirely honest. While “Tight Knit” includes several songs—“Forest Edge” and “Down from Above”—that would fit anywhere in Vetiver’s canon, the new bearings manifest in “Tight Knit” seem to owe more to the rhythm and crunchy horns of sixties funk and the melodies and vocal style of nineties indie pop than to the Americana and “Naturalismo” of previous recordings.

The problem is that no matter how attractive and enjoyable these songs are to listen to, they have lost part of the distinctive character that made Vetiver unique. With “Tight Knit,” Vetiver have proven that they can play in other circles as well, producing their warmest and most enjoyable album yet. But they have yet to put their own stamp on these styles, and time will tell if their future recordings demonstrate that they can bridge the stylistic gap between the vivid and organic Vetiver of old and their jauntier and more playful newer material.