I have always been a fan of Deas Vail’s music since I first heard Shoreline. My wife and I even went to a concert where Deas Vail was the opening act, and stayed only for them, giving Copeland the snub. (Normally we wouldn’t have done that, but the venue was terrible in that the musical nuances that both Copeland and Deas Vail are known for were overwhelmed by the audio engineer’s decision to crank the low end beyond any form of rationality.)
Deas Vail’s first full length album All the Houses Look the Same was wonderful, with such memorable tracks as Light as Air, Shoreline, Follow Sound and This Place is Painted Red.
Deas Vail followed up with the White Lights EP which, file nothing too out of the ordinary for their musical style, still had some incredible music in Undercover, From Priests to Thieves and Balance.
Birds and Cages took the elements of All These Houses Look the Same and White Lights and fused them into their most creative and innovative project to date. Lush production, well crafted melodies and hooks and of course Wes Blaylock’s signature falsetto resulted in an album that was as much of a masterpiece as it was a journey. The Things You Were, Birds, The Great Physician and Atlantis were standout tracks that showcased both lyrical maturity and artistic craftsmanship.
Being an unapologetic Deas Vail fan, it was with much anticipation that I awaited the release of their third full length album, and a self-titled one at that. Prior to the release the band had put up the two song release Under Our Skin which in retrospect seems a sort of bridge between Birds and Cages and the self titled album. While utilizing similar cover art to Birds and Cages, musically it was a little more straight forward pop on All Eyes Are On Your Now like something off of the White Lights EP, while Under Our Skin is more Birds and Cages-esque with the characteristic Deas Vail open and sparse production values. I was thus curious how the forthcoming full length album would ultimately take shape.
The album starts off with what I feel is one of the stand out tracks in Desire. This album focuses primarily on the many facets of love, and the opening line could probably serve as a thesis statement for the rest of the album:
I don’t know what love is
The truth is that I don’t know to be honest
It’s possible that I…
The track then splits into a wonderfully distracting yet workable round, and the resulting duet creates a tension between ‘not knowing what love is’ and wanting it to be something tangible where
I don’t want to turn away
I don’t want to be afraid
I want you in every way
To come back the way you came
Ultimately the round is resolved in the chorus about fire burning on desire. One senses the tension found in not knowing what love is and yet trying to make it work, as if it’s merely being fueled by the desire to love.
The production of Desire is typical Deas Vail and fans of the sparse and open production will not be disappointed. In many respects this track is reminiscent of The Things You Were from Birds and Cages, and both are standout tracks. The duet on the verses almost leaves one wishing that more of the tracks would utilize Laura Blaylock’s vocals in a more prominent way.
Fortunately, Desire is the not the only great track on this project. In Summer Forgets Me we find a masterfully crafted song that completely captures the essence of a memory of love and the feeling of loss that comes when it is gone. Utilizing the metaphor of a photograph taken of a hard to forget memory, Summer Forgets Me includes gems such as this:
Blind from the flash, I’m frozen in time
Everything was perfect, everything was right
Now I’m lost in this world, all the colors seem wrong
Give it just a moment, just a moment
Prior to this comes a gorgeous instrumental interlude where vocal overlays and a slowly building undercurrent provide an unforgettable prelude to this exquisitely crafted bridge which culminates in the resolution in the chorus. The dichotomy developed between the far more lush refrain and the sparse and open instrumental/bridge creates a nice musical setting for the nostalgic sense of everything being ‘perfect’ and the subsequent feeling of loss and disorientation.
Pulling Down the Sun is a bit of a departure from the typical Deas Vail style. The guitar line reminds one of some kind of 70’s spy lead line, and at first is somewhat strange. However, the persistent nature of the line in the verses gives a sense of inevitably to the refrain:
Oh, oh, oh…how did I become the one that’s fallen?
Now everything I know is a version of what was…
Of all the tracks on this album, Pulling Down the Sun probably has some of the most interesting production. Out of the second refrain the listener is treated to rhythmic hits which continue building upon each other as layers of instrumentation are added in throughout. This instrumental ultimately breaks down into an absolutely luscious bridge where once again the lyrical craftsmanship is brought to bear:
Children on their knees
Stolen from their homes and mothers
Lost among the weeds
They will never sing again
Here the loss of love and the resulting pain is metaphorically represented by the image of the aftermath of war with all its attending brokenness and heartache. One might object to such a strong metaphor, but for anyone who has experienced the pain of a broken heart, such language seems apropos, if not objectively meaningful, which, after all, is the whole point of a metaphor.
Bad Dreams and Wake Up and Sleep, while not as stand out as some of the other tracks, will nevertheless not disappoint Deas Vail fans. On Bad Dreams I had kind of wished that they would have let it breathe a little more- the song seems to move from lyric to lyric as if it’s trying to hurry. However, the vocals make up for it, and Blaylock’s falsetto on the refrain is nothing less than dreamy. The guitar solo which essentially mirrors the melody of the refrain has enough interest to carry the instrumental, and there is a wonderful counterpoint between a new lead line and Blaylock’s vocal on the outro.
Wake Up and Sleep is another one of those tracks which while perhaps not amazing is still worth repeat listening. The refrain really gives Blaylock’s vocals a chance to shine. Deas Vail even provided an analysis of the track which can be found here.
The Meaning of a Word is an interesting quasi-instrumental track which is incredibly sparse in its production. The track is rather soothing, although it leaves one wishing that the lead guitar line would not keep playing the same riff over and over. It does, however, provide a nice demonstration of the only lyric:
Is it the words or the voices?
Even though most of the album is truly exquisite, there are a few less than stellar tracks. Towers, while interesting in many ways, especially as the production is developed near the end, suffers from a rather monotonous lead line that not only is persistent throughout the track, but also overwhelms Blaylock’s vocals on the refrain by virtue of doubling the melody. The unfortunate result is that the track just feels bland, and it isn’t until the end of the track that the production begins to come through.
In a similar manner, Common Sense, while not exactly a bad track, isn’t necessarily all that interesting. The melody and vocal performance on the refrains are catchy enough, but the production just kind of seems to be a bit of a miss, with the result that the track can feel a bit plodding.
Meeting In Doorways is the final track and ends the album on a musical high note as this is definitely one of the standout tracks of the album. It showcases intricate musical craftsmanship, lyrical ingenuity and Blaylock’s unforgettable falsetto. If this album began with the statement I don’t know what love is, the resolution may be found in this:
Love’s an unpredictable ghost
Sometimes gone the day you need it the most
This track underscores the lyrical dexterity with incredible dynamic movements. Beginning with synchronous hits in the intro, the production opens up with an understated organ underneath Blaylock’s vocals on the verse. The refrain brings us back to the intro with the synchronous hits and a melody that folds into itself and builds upon what came before. The track then breaks down into a beautifully sparse bridge which has an emotional melody that seems to almost contradict the melody of the refrain. In fact, this lyric seems to answer the question of what the truth of what love is posed by the opening track:
I’m tossed about, I’ll sail into the storm
If I’ve lost you now, these waves will carry me on.
The truth explored by the album seems to be that love is truly an unpredictable ghost- seemingly fragile, shadowy, uncertain, painful. But it is something that is essential to who we are and is worth the pursuit, even in its unpredictability and pain. Even though the waves in the storm toss you about, these self-same waves are what will carry you on.
Overall, Deas Vail’s third full length release is superb in many ways, and fans of Deas Vail will not be disappointed by this release. Whether through the artistry of the lyrics and production or the breathtaking vocal performances, this album delivers a truly outstanding addition to an already impressive catalog of music by Deas Vail.
Be sure to check it out. It will be the best ten dollars you spend this year. Get it here.