Vetiver - Tight Knit
Originally posted at KQED Arts.

The Bay Area has been pumping out some truly excellent folk-rock over the past decade, and few bands have excelled in the genre like San Francisco’s Vetiver. It’s been three years since bandleader Andy Cabic last released an album of original music. 2008 brought A Thing of the Past, a well-regarded collection of eclectic covers that introduced the band’s now-solidified five-member lineup, but Tight Knit–the group’s fourth album–is their first on the ever-evolving Sub Pop Records. Moreover, one hopes and suspects it will introduce them to an expanded indie music audience.

It’s tough to discuss Cabic’s band without referencing the “naturalismo” (to some, pejoratively, “freak-folk”) scene associated with his past collaborator Devendra Banhart. Banhart contributed to the first two Vetiver albums, and Cabic toured in Devendra’s band and produced Cripple Crow. But although the two have co-written songs and co-founded the Gnomonsong record label, their projects substantially diverge sonically. Most notably, Vetiver’s music doesn’t as overtly seek the avant-garde. If anything, it’s more disarmingly conventional–not in the sense of playing it safe, but in embracing and then adapting classic folk-rock sounds and song structures. Mix that with strong songwriting and production, and the result is ten gorgeous songs.

That innate musical familiarity makes Tight Knit remarkably accessible, even if the songs that make the greatest impression upon first listen are the ones that deviate most from its overall feel. Those would be “Everyday” and its Side B counterpart “More of This”; the former is a hazy slice of great California pop, while the latter glides on jangly guitar and a catchy harmony-laden chorus that fades out but leaves a lasting impression. But while those may be the poppiest “singles” amidst the bunch, many subsequent rewards come from unpacking the record’s denser songs. On album highlight “Sister,” Cabic’s airy, wistful singing is the centerpiece, but it’s couched amid slide guitar, reverb-affected vocals and otherworldly sounds that manage never to overpower the song’s fragile beauty.

Credit for making all of this work should go to Cabic and longtime producer Thom Monahan, who keep things feeling deceptively natural despite the often numerous subtle layers underneath. With the exception of the poppier songs noted above, and maybe “Another Reason to Go” (which continues to grow on me despite a built-in aversion to anything remotely boogie rock), Tight Knit‘s dynamic shifts are quite subtle, and it has some great small moments that can be lost if you aren’t paying close attention. It almost feels like sleight of hand, really: Cabic’s vocals and the melodies draw you in while the atmospherics sneak up on you.

While “Strictly Rule” and “Down From Above” likewise push the ambient space envelope, the band saves the psychiest and most ambitious number for last, the absolutely beautiful and sweeping “At Forest Edge.” A story of longing and exploration in a strange and mystical forest, the narrator concludes, “I’ve got to find my own way.” That sentiment, the value of the self-determined journey, percolates throughout the album’s lyrics, but it could equally be described to Andy Cabic and crew. In creating their own space from a unique blend of sounds, they’ve made an album that definitely rewards the journey.

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The Bay Bridged is presenting Vetiver’s CD Release Party for Tight Knit on Wednesday, April 8th at the Great American Music Hall. Adam Stephens (of Two Gallants) and Richard Swift will also be performing.