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Espers - III

The band appears to be walking too fine a musical line.

It’s always seemed that Philadelphia’s Espers never really wanted to be tied too tightly to the ‘freak-folk’ scene they’ve always been associated with. Instead they’ve pushed the boundaries of the genre on their first two full-lengths to the extent where they didn’t really fit into that ‘sound’ anymore, ultimately making music that resembled no one else in that scene or any other one, for that matter. They’ve stretched the confines of their style and scope in such a unique way that in the process they have managed to eclipse most of the talents of their contemporaries. However, on ‘III’, Espers third full-length, the band (now officially a five-piece) regresses a bit towards a more conventional sound and structure, and within that transformation they over-simplify their psych-folk sound, producing songs that are rather lethargic and far too similar to each other to stand out amidst the predominantly sleepy tones found throughout the album.

The band wanted ‘III’ to be more percussive than their past records, and on opener ‘I Can’t See Clear’ that strategy is quite evident, as the drums gently guide the song along until Meg Baird’s distinctive vocals carry the sullen track home. There is a slight Midlake sound to the second number, ‘The Road Of Golden Dust,’ but the relaxed potency of the song begins to wane during an overlong guitar solo by Greg Weeks that draws the song to a close. The dreamy beauty of ‘Caroline’ brings a focus back to the album, and puts the spotlight squarely on the lush duet between Baird and Weeks, along with some haunting musical flourishes that only adds to the pensive nature of the song. Here the simplicity of their arrangements clearly works, but the album adheres too closely to this formula to reach the momentous heights of ‘II’, their previous record. There is a safe tranquility that permeates much of ‘III’, and while everything found on the record is pleasant and melodious, there is very little here that ultimately shocks or surprises the listener, which isn’t the case on Espers other innovative releases.

There is a sinister moodiness to ‘That Which Darkly Thrives,’ but rather than exploring that menacing air further, the song becomes rather stagnant and placid instead of becoming unhinged in any way. And that threat of becoming unglued has always given Espers music a pulse and a purpose, and that is fundamentally what seems to be missing on ‘III’, which contains hints of that instability but never fully gives into the impulse. The band appears to be walking too fine a musical line on songs like ‘Sightings’ and ‘Colony,’ where it seems the storm clouds gather but ultimately it never rains.

There is a palpable build up of emotion and venom within the dark recesses of these songs, but those feelings are never fully expressed or realized, instead they are couched within guarded, slightly cautious songs that fail to fully flourish. Espers have succeeded in pairing down the excess that has partially clouded their vision in the past, crafting simple but stirring songs that are drenched in spare, delicate elegance. But in doing so, they have lost a bit of their ineffable quality that made finding your way into the dark heart of their music so enjoyable in the first place.

Tags: Espers, Reviews, Album Reviews

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