Oh America, when will you cease to sell us your legends? How do you fool us so easily with your charms? Why are we such suckers for the bends and swells of the Southern tongue and the slide guitar? And is any of this real? Isn’t the South these days just air-conditioned strip malls and multi-lane highways?
Ostensibly Vandaveer are not promising. An Americana band who find much of their success in Europe reeks of another savvy musician cashing in on the endless appetite of people in the ‘old world’ for anything in spurs. And yet, once the record starts playing, that undeniable indescribable allure of the mystical South claws its way into your gut once more, because when Vandaveer do American folk they go the whole hog.
There are a number of notable moments on Divide and Conquer where Vandaveer capture the swagger, the grandiosity, the mystery, the sin, the sound and the fury of the America of legends. Opening track, ‘Fistful of Swoon’ is sparingly constructed from Spartan bass, plucked guitar, kick and hat and an elegantly reverbed piano. Singer-songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger growls, backing vocalist Rose Guerin whispers, the climax builds entirely on the power of their voices and sparing use of slide guitar. Sure it’s a pastiche of a sound we’ve heard a hundred times before, but it has the same poise and knowing tongue-in-cheek of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. ‘Turpentine’ picks up where ‘Fistful…’ left off, this time with the addition of a haunting chorus of woeful southern belles (or rather, Roses) that is reminiscent of Marissa Nadler’s Little Hells. A kick drum with the pace and severity of a cold heartbeat drives ‘The Sound and the Fury’ as it rides of waves of ghostly choir and tremulous organ like some long-dead mariner’s ballad, while Heidinger sings of poison rain and lakes of fire. On the awkwardly titled ‘Beverley Cleary’s 115th Dream’ Vandaveer notch up some good old lovesick melancholy, a sentiment strangely absent from the rest of the album, and boy is that plain old love song a welcome closer.
In these four startling immediate songs Vandaveer evoke the ghosts and spirits of country music without becoming mired its conventions. Together they would make a short EP to be reckoned with, were it not for all the filler between them. For a band so well-versed at producing carefully crafted nuggets of atmospheric Americana they sure can churn out some asinine Jon Mayer-meets-James Taylor tripe. The middle of the album in particular is filled with unchallenging song structures, gratingly constant keys and passionless singing, dull, meaningless lyrics like “You stood strong, though you were wrong, couldn’t break, but you broke through”. ‘Resurrection Mary’, ‘Before the Great War’ and ‘Long Lost Cause’ are the biggest offenders, filled as they are with handclaps, ‘woah woah’ choruses, Spanish guitar, and sung with all the passion of a grocery list, like Califone sucked dry of wistfulness, nostalgia and ambition.
The two sides of Vandaveer- all the more striking due to the haphazard sequencing of the album- present a perplexing contrast. It’s as if the band recorded two different releases, one full of exciting moody Americana, and another a cynical insurance policy designed to make some money off of the popularity of Bon Iver.
Much as Jason Molina did before in his classic Songs:Ohia albums ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and ‘Ghost Tropic’, the best moments in Divide and Conquer manage to be pure, simple, spare folk and roots music, and yet so much more challenging and incisive than run-of-the-mill Americana. Let’s hope Heidinger and Co.’s next album, already recorded apparently, pulls of that feat much more consistently.