A great line in the press release that comes with this third full album from Espers. “The band attempted to create something that would be perhaps cheery at times,” it reads, “though that mark may have been missed.”
“Cheery” is certainly stretching it, but from the start of “III”, it seems like Espers, historically one of the most dirge-favouring – and, just maybe, one of the best – of the acid-folk revivalists , have changed tack a little. “I Can’t See Clear” has a relatively mournful atmosphere – Meg Baird’s lovely voice makes that fairly inevitable – but there’s something akin to jauntiness in the way the song progresses. More of a waltz than a jig, a new lightness of touch is fractionally palpable, a sense that Espers are partially emerging, blinking, from their Philadelphia hedge.
On his last solo album, “The Hive”, Espers pivot Greg Weeks turned in a typically funereal version of Madonna’s “Borderline”. Apparently, it was originally planned for an Espers record, but didn’t fit into the aesthetic which was forming. Now “III” is here, you can see why. The hazy folk moods are generally recognisable; the fuzzy, needling riffs from Brooke Sietinson retain that courtly, beguiling take on psychedelia; Baird and Weeks remain an engagingly doleful twin focus.
But mostly, the drones have been dropped, so that these songs move at, relatively speaking, a new clip. It’s probably a clever move; in that piece on “The Hive” linked in the previous paragraph, I mentioned how reductive their dronefolk schtick could be; one more album fully committed to that style and maybe Espers could’ve started turning into a kind of hipster All About Eve. Nevertheless, the first half-dozen or so plays of “III” suggest that, while it’s a frequently terrific album, it’s not quite in the same class as “II”, that it’s missing a little of that sustained intensity.
Perhaps I’m fussing too much. “III” is a hugely airy and beguiling album, beautifully sequenced: a current favourite passage runs from the prickly, psychedelic instrumental coda of “The Road Of Golden Dust”, through the sparkling duet, “Caroline”, into the Baird-fronted “The Pearl”, a song much in the same, Linda Perhacs-esque vein as the outstanding “Riverhouse In Tinicum” from her solo album, “Dear Companion”.
“That Which Darkly Thrives” seems to revert to the gloomy style of “II”, as the title might suggest. But then, the drummer – I’m not sure whether it’s still Otto Hauser – starts playing a kind of breakbeat, of all things, which subtly tips the song off its more predictable axis. “III” is full of nice, clever touches like this. The whole album, the way the strings and guitars are augmented by delicately burbling old keyboards (an analogue to “The Hive”, this), is familiar but refreshed. When they roll into “Another Moon Song”, it even seems as if Espers have taken their traditionally dolorous vibes, their faintly menacing Mellotron, and stuck them onto something like a blues progression, albeit a musty, quasi-medieval one.
Then “Colony” starts, and it sounds like it could’ve sat very moodily and effectively on “II”. Possibly some over-nuanced distinctions in this preview, I’m beginning to suspect…