Espers – Espers II

Espers II

Since the Stateside release of Espers’ eponymous debut in 2004, Greg Weeks, Meg Baird, and companions have certainly been far from idle, inking fresh recording contracts (with Wichita Recordings in the UK, Drag City in the US), touring extensively (alongside Devendra Banhart and Stereolab), releasing a superb covers-based mini-album (2005’s The Weed Tree), delivering sundry extra-curricular non-album tracks, and swelling from a three to six-piece ensemble. The culmination of all these developments brings us now to the group’s official sophomore set, the numerically monikered Espers II, an album that brings the band to a pivotal point. At this point, early obvious influences should theoretically make way for a clearer individualised identity. It’s a career-defining challenge that the band does rise to throughout the course of these seven lengthy tracks, even if there is some fuzzy shirking along the way.

The most crucial step forward comes through the promotion (as brilliantly applied for on The Weed Tree) of Meg Baird from co-vocalist to primary vocalist. Whilst Greg Weeks does still contribute his weedier indie-boy whisper here and there (largely on “Children of Stone” and “Moon Occults the Sun”), this time around Baird’s balmy bucolic tones have further freedom to roam across the band’s pastoral landscapes to glorious effect (especially on “Dead Queen” and “Mansfield and Cyclops”). This wise democratic transference has undoubtedly freed up Weeks to weave more imaginative instrumental webs around the group’s studio constructs. In particular, his love of acid-squelching guitars and arcane electronics continues to frazzle the edges around the group’s otherwise more traditionalist musical ideology. Whereas such genre-bending became a tad meandering on the band’s first long-player, here it is more channelled and focused, with doomy discordance (particularly on “Widow’s Weed”) expertly blurring with delicate dreaminess through an almost-orchestral ebb and flow, not a million miles away from Mercury Rev’s See You on the Other Side or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The addition of extra players, notably cellist Helena Espvall and percussionist Otto Hauser (‘on loan’ from Devendra Banhart and Vetiver), also lets the Espers sound unfurl with more detailed atmospheric framing, as best evidenced on the seductively swooning “Cruel Storm.”

For a band so clearly enamoured with formative influences and likeminded fellow-travellers, Espers’ members clearly weren’t going to – and perhaps never will – completely jettison obvious reasons to provoke direct comparisons with the 60s/70s Brit-folk of Pentangle and Fairport Convention as well as the acid-fried rustics of the growing Devendra Banhart cult. It’s perhaps a situation the band was aware of – and happy to live with – from the start, especially given that Weeks himself has dabbled with the demons of music journalism, having once been a scribe for sadly departed British quarterly tome, Comes With a Smile. However, it’s the core songwriting beneath the band’s rich sonic layering that needs the greatest sharpening. As the band’s sublime covers of Nico, Michael Hurley, and The Durutti Column proved on The Weed Tree, a little more melodic anchoring beneath Espers’ well-hoisted sails would go a long way to creating a more memorable and lasting wave outside of a steadily swelling sub-genre. Until then, though, Espers II serves as sturdy wind to push an imaginative and idiosyncratic crew onwards in its ongoing voyage of self-discovery.