Busted Chandeliers, Postmarks & Timestamps
The first track of the Quad Cities quartet Busted Chandeliers' Postmarks & Timestamps album is titled "Love Is Bold," and the song is, too, in its folksy way. The vocal harmonies are tight, and every instrumental facet - the guitar, the ukulele, the hand claps, the bass, and the percussion - is integral and integrated yet doing its own thing. The song is emotionally amorphous but at the same time crystalline.
The band - Erin Moore, Amy Falvey, Maureen Carter, and Erin Marie Bertram - certainly leads with its best shot, but it's hardly the only highlight. The ensemble travels on many tributaries of Americana on the record, but it's at its strongest in waters so expertly navigated in "Love Is Bold" - a joyously dense and ambitiously rigorous folk rock that refuses to be pigeonholed from moment to moment.
Songs "Tennessee Man" and "Parasite" have soulful lead vocals - country- and blues-tinged, respectively - and upbeat tempos, but they feel too straightforward and simple compared to their less-driving company on Postmarks & Timestamps.
"Run," as a contrast, has a busy-ness and bluntness in the drums, along with early stops that last just a beat longer than expected, keeping the listener alert and off-balance.
The high-pitched, ethereal keyboards of "Whiskey & Wine" are a similar touch - given the genre, a slightly out-of-place curlicue that subtly grabs your attention, drawing you into the song.
On the sleepily sad "Proof," the lead guitar and its distinctive tone are used sparingly to fill in the emotional spaces of the plainly sung lyrics ("And I used to think the world was running out of poems / Not a damn song left to sing"), and against the piano it sketches out the story in as few notes as possible.
"Dust," on the other hand, has electric guitars and piano doing individual dances as a father serves a warm slice of nostalgia to his daughter. It's an arrangement that allows you to happily focus on one aspect of performance, with the rest falling away until the next listen.
The singing throughout is languidly sultry - exemplified by the lounge-y "Anyway" - and unerringly pleasing. Yet because there's so much else going on in terms of playing and arrangement, the vocals often defer to the band, at best an equally important component.
So the final track, "Wolves," is an elastic, piano-driven jam that seems to be lacking something. It's telling that it might take a few minutes to realize that it's missing the singing - and then that it's not really missing anything at all.
For more information on Busted Chandeliers, visit Facebook.com/bustedchandeliers.
Robyn McVey, Slings & Arrows
On her album Slings & Arrows, the voice of Quad Cities singer/songwriter Robyn McVey first struck me as almost wobbly, a powerful tool not quite mastered. The singing also sounds tentative - flat and a little fearful.
Yet the more I listened to the record, the character of the vocals changed. Paired with professional, low-key instrumentation and some lovely interplay with male backing vocals, McVey's singing took on an almost mournful weight. The imperfect textures came to feel less like a failing than a choice - the best way to emotionally convey the lyrics.
So on "Marker for a Grave," her voice captures the words' intentionally vague lament - the loss of people and things whose names are long forgotten. The meaning of the lyrics is crystal clear, but the vocals do the heavy lifting. It's an alchemic matching of material and treatment.
When the subject is more personal, the blend of loose singing and sharp writing is even more magical. On "Trust to Dust," the first impression is again of off-target vocals, but that's replaced in the muted crescendo of the chorus by a forceful precision in the impact of a relationship and its end, both in the words and their delivery: "Did you think 'cause you let go / Didn't leave a mark that would show / That you were free to go? / No absolution for you / No compensation for me / Can equal the price I pay."
The idiosyncrasy of McVey's voice, though, requires strong songwriting to work. The lyrics on some songs are awkward, and on those tracks her singing just feels off. "If Wishes Were Horses," for instance, has a clever idea shoehorned into a forced line: "Like a playlist / On shuffle repeat / I can't stop / Replaying my mistakes." I love the simile, but because the words don't have an easy rhythm, they demand a vocal treatment that can elegantly transform them - and McVey's nakedly coarse singing lacks the polish to pull it off.
More frequently, though, she finds the right balance of open-wound singing with the counterweight of artful songcraft. The vocals on "Don't Come Back" feel truer, and the acoustic guitar and flute provide a light touch that helps them take flight - and conveys a solemn, graceful freedom matching the lyrics. And the song has a fantastic, casually tossed-off closer: "I know you made your choice / Thank God it wasn't me."
"Every Ending" has a folk authenticity in which the vocal readings - particularly the way the voices separate and come back together - have a gorgeous tightness.
The title-track opener has a layering of the instruments that adds depth to the singing - delicate acoustic guitar, distortion in the bass, and nimbly expressive lead guitar that echoes the vocal lines in the chorus. Even though McVey's singing feels at times artless, it's often a strength on Slings & Arrows, particularly when the arrangements and lyrics give them the emotional context they require.
Robyn McVey will celebrate the release of Slings & Arrows at a Songwriters' Showcase on May 28 at the River Music Experience (129 Main Street, Davenport; RiverMusicExperience.org). The 7 p.m. event also features Jenny Ferrell, Mark Ridolfi, and David G. Smith, and cover is $5.
For more information on McVey, visit RobynMcVey.com.