Listening to Espers

I would have to say that I came to Espers via the side exit.  I found myself increasingly drawn to an album of traditional folk songs given to me by a mate.  The album was called ‘Dear Companion’, a 2007 recording by a Philadelphia-based folk singer called Meg Baird. 

 Meg Baird on stage

‘Dear Companion’ is an album of the kind of full-on folk music that I normally avoid like the plague.  Baird works alone and accompanies herself throughout  on guitar and dulcimer.  Originally from New Jersey, she has allegedly  traced her ancestry back to some real 19th-century Appalachian Mountain folks, although the tracks on ‘Dear Companion’ borrow heavily from the folk traditions of this country as well.  ‘Willie O’ Winsbury’ is a song I recognised from one of Anne Briggs’ early ’70’s albums and there are a number of grim traditional ballads of medieval mayhem like ‘The Cruelty of Barbry Ellen’ and ‘Maiden in the Moor Lay’. However, for me, the best song on the album is Baird’s own ‘Riverhouse in Tinicum’, a song that has a much more contemporary feel to it. And that really offers a clue to a quite different Meg Baird; the one whose Jacqui McShee meets Sandy Denny vocals are a major component of Espers.  Having enjoyed ‘Dear Companion’ so much, and with Baird routinely described on sundry websites as the lead singer in Espers, they were always going to be my next port of call.

What I found was that Espers are also based in Philadelphia and have thus far recorded four albums – three of original material; (I [2004], II [2006] and III [2009]  plus an album of covers ; ‘The Weed Tree’ [2005] )

They began as  a core trio of  Baird (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Greg Weeks (guitars/bass/keyboards/vocals) and Brooke Sietinsons (guitar/vocals).  This trio were largely reponsible for the band’s first album, which drew a good deal of critical acclaim.  For their next project, the covers album ‘The Weed Tree’, the trio was augmented by Swedish-born cellist Helena Espvall, percussionist Otto Hauser and bassist Chris Smith.  The expanded sextet have since produced two further albums which have  developed  their slightly tremulous folky origins into something far more muscular and owing more to rock than to folk.

The six-piece version of Espers…looks familiar somehow…..

If Baird’s vocal stylings are one distinctive characteristic of Espers , another is probably Greg Weeks’ enthusiasm for broadening the palette of the band’s sound.  Weeks frequently shares vocal duties with Baird, but it’s his talents as a multi-instrumentalist that have propelled Espers beyond their folk roots.  There is a geekish quality about Greg Weeks.  He suffers from acute tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome that must render the act of creating music fairly hellish at times – and his CV features no less than four solo albums alongside his work with Espers. 

However, he also has a fondness for unearthing vintage keyboards in junk shops and rebuilding mellotrons.  If anyone can be said to have pushed the envelope of the Espers sound, it’s probably him.  There were signs from quite early on , but when the band followed up their successful debut album with ‘The Weed Tree’ we soon saw from their choice of covers that someone in the band had been listening to something other than Fairport Convention.  Alongside the fairly predictable ‘Rosemary Lane ‘ and ‘Black is the colour’ from the Folkies’ Handbook, ‘The Weed Tree’ also features left-field offerings such as The Durutti Column’s ‘Tomorrow‘ and a 10-minute acid-guitar blowout version of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Flaming Telepaths’.  This might seem startling enough, but when I read an interview with Weeks where he cited Egg’s ‘The Polite Force’ and the brilliant post-King Crimson ‘McDonald & Giles’ album as being on his Desert Island Discs hitlist, it all began to make sense.  For Weeks, as for me, 1970 was clearly a landmark year.

Very familiar…inner gatefold from Bronco’s ‘Ace of Sunlight’ (Island Records 1971)…plus ça change…..

Stylistically, tracks like ‘Flaming Telepaths’ and ‘The Weed Tree’s ‘ only original track, ‘Dead King’  took Espers out of the folk ghetto and launched them into deeper waters.  On 2006’s  ‘II‘,  the six-piece band produced denser textures, though the drum sound was still throttled back.  Massed acoustic guitars and Espvall’s cello usually provided a bedrock for most of the songs, with vocals layered on top and a widening palette of other instruments – electric guitars, recorders, synths, flutes, mellotrons and random swirls of electronica – used as embellishments.  The songs got longer, too, with nothing under five minutes in length and frequent instrumental forays by Weeks.  ‘II’ is a compelling album, but there is something vaguely indigestible about it; the mix has a slightly cluttered quality  and the vocals occasionally get lost in the richness of the arrangements.  It’s almost as though Espers had been let loose in a vintage instrument shop and decided to use everything they found.  For all that, ‘II‘ has some great songs and firms up the experimental forays of its predecessor.  The new fuller sound invited comparisons with bands like Hem, Midlake and some of David Roback’s ventures – notably Opal – and had journalists straining for new categorisations to pigeonhole the Espers sound.  Psych-folk, anyone?

It would three years before the third  album of original Espers material (‘III’ – is there some kind of Led Zeppelin thing going on here?) appeared in 2009.  ‘III’ has a fuller sound and a wider range of material.  Drums are much further forward , but the vocals have been restored to some kind of centrality in the mix, which makes the album more coherent somehow.  Some of the songs are almost conventional in their structure and arrangments and whilst the doomy psychedelia of previous recordings has not disappeared entirely, it does seem to be more integrated into the band’s overall sound.  Having said that, I’m not sure that the songs on ‘III’ are as memorable as on previous albums somehow.  Oh well.

Espers are probably about due another album, but the collective bonds that tie them together are looser than in some of their contemporaries.  Baird, Espvall and Weeks have all produced solo albums, Baird and Espvall worked with Sharron Kraus on another album of traditional tunes and most of the band moonlight with other performers.  The success they have had with Espers will probably mean that there will be more from the band in due course, but I suspect that the further they depart from their origins in folk music, the tougher it may be to keep this maverick ensemble together.

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