November 26, 2014

November 26, 2014 by Brandon Taylor

You’d never guess it, but St. Paul De Vence – one of Seattle’s (most well renowned) Folk/Americana groups and Seattle Living Room Shows alumni – started as a side project.  Lead singer and guitarist Ben Doerr started out playing with a band under his own name, but switched gears when a batch of songs inspired by his grandfather’s World War II memories received an immediate positive reaction.  Doerr built a new band, named it for a French township in which his grandfather was stationed, and St. Paul de Vence burst onto the scene with a self-titled debut album that dominated KEXP’s daytime playlist for weeks.

It comes as great news for the band’s listeners, then, that the group has just released a new record. Called Farther than Light, St. Paul De Vence’s second full-length album is a work of art that won’t fall short of the first.

Building on the project’s original tack, the endeavor also branches out in several ways.  Farther Than Light keeps the wayfaring feel of guitar, banjo and sentimental tenor vocals (bravo, Doerr) that the band started with, but adds more complexity of feeling by way of enhanced composition, more horns, keys, and a new female voice.

The first track, “Telling Me So,” twinkles into being with a familiar walking pace and clean guitar fingerpicking.  But a few bars in, Doerr’s voice is joined by that of new member Lydia Ramsey.  The gentle pairing is a success – a romantic harmony calling over the hills to a lover somewhere far away.  Spare but careful songwriting keeps the song feeling full with nothing more than that reverbed guitar and lyrical lines like, “And the wind takes it’s turn to say/ a thousand apologies/ and that it never held back.”  It’s folk music in fine form, wandering hopefully through a land of love and trepidation.

Three songs in, title track “Farther Than Light” marks a change in the album’s disposition. Offering the listener a gentle boost of speed, it’s bouncing, almost Paul Simon-like guitar and bass are topped with trade-off verses from Doerr and Ramsey. The duality of male and female vocals is exceptionally valuable to St. Paul de Vence – love songs become a longing from both sides; tales of war are more powerfully vulnerable; the ideas behind Doerr’s words take a full and balanced form – but the call-and-answer in this piece makes the effect especially noticeable.  While exploring further areas of longing and memory in its words, the song stays pleasantly light on its feet almost as if to entice the listener onwards.

Perhaps the best example of the band’s evolution comes about halfway through the album at track five. Titled “Spring,” this piece offers a great example of St. Paul de Vence’s new ability to create really massive sounds.  The song blossoms gradually.  Even piano chords, then Doerr’s voice followed by guitar, banjo and drums create a gentle buildup.  The instruments roll along pleasantly until, just when you think the musical idea is full-grown, a trumpet, a trombone, and eventual vocal chorus swell into an indie-folk symphony of epic proportions.  The scope of this piece is great, but equally striking is the variety of places (emotionally and sonically) the band is able to go – always well together – while keeping the iron hot with engaging transitions.  It feels like that night you lie awake in bed, almost more alive with all the experiences of love and pain you’ve felt than when you were  living them.

Breaking from specific track descriptions, it’s worth mentioning how generally flexible the sound and feeling of St. Paul de Vence has become. The band’s debut album explores most of its affections through a veil of mourning, using mostly the same selection of instruments in each track.  Farther Than Light, however, never seems to stop transforming. From the sparse and lonely “Telling Me So” to the hopeful and uplifting “Farther Than Light” to the electric guitar-driven and road rambling “On This Road,” the instrumentation and delivery of the tracks just keeps changing.  It’s surprising (in a good way), but makes sense considering how Doerr first formed the band.  Shortly after ditching his solo effort, he gathered some fellow players in his living room, made a pile of instruments in the center and encouraged his friends simply to “pick up whatever looks good.”

As if waiting to turn out the lights, the album saves an alternate take of “Farther Than Light for last.  Over thoughtfully spaced piano chords, Doerr’s unique tenor explains that he’s “Farther than light/ Farther than pain/ Farther than all those little things.”  Ramsey answers in a verse of her own, soon joined by Doerr to complete this lonely, beaten-up ballad. What they’re missing; what they’re far from could be many things, but all of them have to do with love.

“Having to do with love” seems an accurate description of every track on Farther Than Light.  Whether up or down, Doerr always leads the band somewhere honest; somewhere real.  Word has it that the album is short-listed for album of the year and in my opinion, that’s a rumor worth believing.

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