The Cave Singers Welcome Joy

[Matador; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: neo-folk, traditional rock
Others: Ryan Adams, The Tallest Man on Earth, Joanna Newsom

I first heard The Cave Singers a few months ago. I was in Tel Aviv, visiting an old friend. We’d spent the evening wandering around; we drank beers on the shore of the Mediterranean, walked to her dealer’s apartment to score some hash, sought out empty tables in busy restaurants, nestled in between garages and abandoned industrial buildings. It had been years since we saw each other, and our conversations took the form of an evening-long narrative. So much had happened in the lost time since we’d said our old goodbyes, and we tripped over our own and each others’ words, trying to get all that past out of the way. By the end of the night, I was weary from all that reconnection, but still too high to sleep. The city was in the middle of a heat wave, and I, hopelessly American, was having a hard time adjusting to the temperature.

As I tossed around in bed, she put on The Cave Singers, before falling effortlessly to sleep. Sleep did not come as easily to me. I tumbled through the sheets, stoned and agitated. And within the first seconds of Invitation Songs, The Cave Singers’ debut album, I found comfort, if not sleep. I remained awake for the duration the album, riveted by the spare, sad beauty of the music. I knew nothing of them at the time. I confused the singer for a woman; above the whirring of the fan, he could have been a wood nymph or some other sort of elemental creature for all I knew. His voice was high in pitch, yet anachronistically comforting, in a manner similar to that of Joanna Newsom's. The picked guitars sounded old and yellow, as if the instruments themselves were sepia-toned.

Since that night, I’ve found myself returning to Invitation Songs whenever I feel like getting sentimental. Even in sobriety, the album does something elusive to me. The Cave Singers’ music is blank enough to impose my own memories and associations over it -- but it's also frustratingly impersonal. It takes much skill to make new music feel eerily familiar, but that level of craftsmanship also makes for slightly boring music; the album is engineered better than most, to elicit a very specific feeling. While this precision is to thank for my comfort on that humid Tel Aviv night, it's also responsible for my growing ambivalence to The Cave Singers since then.

The Cave Singers’ new album, Welcome Joy, works to remedy that increasing dissatisfaction, by way of some tweaking of their formula. While still drawing heavily on folk influences, Welcome Joy is more traditionally ‘rock’ than its predecessor. Gone is the wispy, ethereal quality that made Invitation Songs so inviting, replaced by electric guitars and a more identifiable bravado. Pete Quirk’s singing style, which was once intriguingly, pre-pubescently androgynous, sounds like it has somehow aged decades in the year since the last album. Instead of conjuring thoughts of Joanna Newsom, Quirk’s mush-mouthed delivery now sounds uncannily similar to that of Ryan Adams. Some of the rockier cuts, like “At The Cut,” wouldn’t have been out of place on any of his Cardinals albums. As far as stylistic shifts go, this move towards the modern era is somewhat disappointing. It modifies their identity as a group without resolving their continual impersonality.

Welcome Joy, however, is as successful an interpretation of traditional rock as Invitation Songs was a reimagining of pre-modern folk. Despite certain stylistic mismatches, such as the jammy, stoner-ish “At The Cut,” The Cave Singers continue to beguile, even if they do so without much individual musical identity. While some of Welcome Joy’s best songs, like “Summer Light” and “Leap,” are those that sound like they were cut from the Invitation Songs sessions, others are in the more contemporary mold, such as the aptly-titled “Jangle.” Along with “I Don’t Mind,” it evokes classic roots rock without surrendering to any MOR-mindlessness. Welcome Joy has some half-baked moments — “Shrine” comes to life, momentarily, but not after three long bongo-filled minutes — but they are far outnumbered by those that are reassuringly generic. The haunting vocal contributions of Lightning Dust’s Amber and Ashley Webber help to offset some of the unsuccessfully ‘rock’ elements of the album, lending it a mood similar to that cultivated on Invitation Songs. Welcome Joy, packed full of references to beaches, shores, trees, and open roads, is effective in its evocation of a rustic mythos. The Cave Singers are well-versed in the vernacular of this fantasy-America. Their vagueness is purposeful, and their lack of identity ultimately successful.

My feelings toward Invitation Songs have faded at a rate more or less equal to that of the fading of my memories of that sleepless night. It could be worse; some album spells last only as long as the effects of psychotropic substances. I was slower to warm to Welcome Joy, but its modest pleasures continue to linger with me. The album does not hold me in as rapt attention, but to say that Welcome Joy would hardly have made the same impact on me, in my stoned, vulnerable state, is not quite indicative of inferiority. The Cave Singers, though hobbled by their overly-familiar nature, make sweet, sentimental music. Welcome Joy, despite its rockier bent, is no exception.

1. Summer Windows
2. Leap
3. At the Cut
4. Shrine
5. Hen of the Woods
6. Beach House
7. Jangle
8. I Don't Mind
9. Townships
10. Welcome Joy

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