Vervein – Vast Low Cities

Vast Low Cities

So after reading Where Dead Voices Gather, I spent several months looking for the Emmett Miller CD released by Capitol Legacy in 1996. I eventually came across a copy at a respectable price, and I would be remiss if I did not admit that it did feel like something of an accomplishment. It didn’t match up to finding a copy of Black Monk Time for a buck in Wilmington, NC, but I did experience that sense of slightly embarrased yet thoroughly cockle-warming sense of meager accomplishment familiar to record collectors and Legend of Zelda players the world over. That satisfaction has been dimmed somewhat by my recent discovery of the same CD for only four bucks at a store in Boston, where apparently the music-buying public does not understand the unsettling beauty of Georgia-bred Mr. Miller’s work. I guess minstrelsy ain’t for everybody. But so, despite this recent pride-tempering find, that anticipation and excitement in uncovering a long-sought-for piece of music remains one of the most vivid joys in the life of an intemperate music junkie.
I spent absolutely no time looking for, or even thinking about, Vervein’s album Vast Low Cities. Truth be told, I had never heard of the band until this CD appeared in my mail box one idling afternoon. And though it’s nothing near the magnitude of the Monks or Emmett Miller, this record by this unheralded California band has made a sizable impact upon me. Listening to a really good band for the first time can be as exciting as finally finding that long-lost classic you’ve spent years searching for, and while Vervein is not great, per se, Vast Low Cities is a good enough record to make me excited about Vervein’s future. I haven’t heard the latest Clientelle or Aislers Set records, but I feel relatively safe in stating that Vast Low Cities is probably going to be the best indie-pop record of 2003, or at least the best one by a band nobody had ever heard of before.
To cut some corners here, Vervein could be compared, not too incorrectly, to Death Cab for Cutie. Both dwell on the edges of indie-pop, skirting well on the right side of the twee-pop divide, and crafting well thought-out, melodic rock that occasionally pokes its nose into rhthymic patterns similar to mid-90s emo groups. Most songs are tender and icily beautiful, with little overt rocking. Thankfully, though, unlike Death Cab, Vervein are not heartstompingly boring. Far from it, in fact. Everything is nice and modest and introspective and could easily be used as the soundtrack to one of those teenage soap opera shows, particularly in any scene that involves the lead character standing in a brown or green sweater beneath a gentle shower of dying leaves, wistfully eyeing his or her loved one walk by, holding the hands of another. Yes, this is some wistful pop, here, friend, content to sigh and reminisce instead of getting angry. The most rocking song present is probably “Arches of Georgia,” and it’s still rather mild. The guitarists rarely play chords, usually noodling around little melodic bits of business, and occasionally a cello or organ will pop up and lend some extra solemnity to the generally somber proceedings. Picture a less jazzy Karate, or a less poppy and immediately catchy Kincaid, and you might have a good idea of what Vervein sounds like.
Hell, maybe I just like them because they have a song called “Arches of Georgia,” I don’t know. Most likely, however, my appreciation is due to the combination of Vervein’s pleasing melodies and singer Jess Congdon’s modest yet powerful voice. That voice is well tailored to Vervein’s pretty pop music, enveloping the listener like a warm net hammock on a cool September evening. Congdon sings somewhat like a slightly higher Georgia Hubley, usually emitting a soothing drone of a tone that is also reminiscent of the voices of the ladies in Azure Ray. It really is the best instrument at the band’s disposal, and Congdon and allies make excellent use of it.
The most surprising thing about this record, for me, is not its quality, but that it has impressed a guy like me as much as it has. Now I’ve got nothing against confessional female indie-pop; stuff like the Softies, Mirah, and Shannon Wright has its place and purpose, but it’s never really been a strong area of interest for me. I’m not going to say that Vervein is better than the Softies and Mirah, as I’ve never listened to enough of their stuff to have a strong opinion about them. Vervein has definitely made a stronger first impression upon me than either of those groups, though.
I have no idea if this Vervein’s first record or not. I do know that Vast Low Cities is a surprisingly good record, and seems far too assured and well-crafted to be a group’s debut. Either way, Vervein deserves acclaim for this unflaggingly pleasant record, which is roughly a billion times better than anything ever made by the somewhat similar Rilo Kiley. Maybe it’s not too late for Vervein to relocate to Omaha and hop on that city’s overhyped, overblown coattails before the press decides to kill off that scene. I think it’d be better for everyone involved, however, if they stayed put and focused on creating even better records for the benefit of future generations of Americans.