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Thursday, June 8, 2006 01:35 pm

No freaks – just folk

If Vetiver were a drug, it’d be hash, not acid

Vetiver To Find Me Gone (Di Cristina)
There’s a reason Vetiver gets lumped in with the freak-folk crowd, but it doesn’t have much to do with its music. Andy Cabic, the San Francisco-based collective’s only permanent member, plays guitar in Devendra Banhart’s touring band and even runs a label with him (Gnomonsong, home of Feathers and Jana Hunter). Vetiver’s 2004 debut found Cabic in the company of Banhart and the crown princess of freak-folk herself, the harp-playing hipster Joanna Newsom. Boon companions notwithstanding, Cabic just isn’t that freaky. Unlike Newsom, he doesn’t have a weird, quavery, frighten-your-mom kind of voice, and he doesn’t come off like some hirsute, demented pixie, as Banhart often does. Cabic’s songs are pretty and hypnotic, wafting along on a cloud of incense and good intentions, and his voice is agreeable if undistinguished, a slightly raspy tenor that brings to mind either a younger Paul Simon or a more laid-back Jeff Tweedy. To Find Me Gone, Vetiver’s second full-length, is plenty folk, but freak — not so much. This is lazy, hazy summertime music, music to loll in a creek to on a muggy afternoon. If it were a drug, it would be hash, not acid. The songs, if somewhat repetitive, are far from monotonous; they have an incantatory, intensely polyphonic quality that won’t blow your mind but might very well occupy it for a pleasant interval. One of their most satisfying attributes, in fact, is their deceptive simplicity, the way a humble three- or four-note figure spawns a profusion of possibilities, the way the violin echoes the cello echoing a tiny finger-picked guitar pattern until the motif turns into a canon. It’s a crazy, kaleidoscopic effect, a bit like looking at a fly’s eye under a microscope. At its best, as on the droning, raga-like hymn “Been So Long;” the vibraphone-accented Delta-noir blues “You May Be Blue”; and the involuted, hallucinatory lullaby “Double,” Vetiver perfects a kind of maximal minimalism in which repetition blossoms into epiphany. Other songs are less singular but only slightly less enthralling: “I Know No Pardon,” a dilatory country-rock charmer, sounds like a great lost Wilco outtake, and “The Porter” sounds like Tin Pan Alley transplanted to a Sam Peckinpah set. The freaks might be disappointed by the CD’s unassailable prettiness — its failure to comply with the esoteric doctrines of the underground elite, its unfashionable evocations of Fleetwood Mac and even (oof!) the Grateful Dead — but when it’s time to come down from whatever awesome trip they’re on, To Find Me Gone might be a welcome reprieve from the usual weirdness.
If you dug Manzanita, Mia Doi Todd’s last album, you’ll want to pick up La Ninja, too, if only to hear what a handful of cutting-edge producers can do with those sui generis folk songs, which seemed so perfectly inviolable in their original incarnations. The remixes, which range from Dungen’s relatively straightforward psych-rockification of “My Room Is White” to Ammoncontact’s clattery deconstruction of “Muscle, Bone & Blood,” are revelatory. They don’t attempt to improve on the originals, but, like all worthwhile interpretations, they expose angles that you may have missed the first time around. What’s more, because the CD contains several remixes of the same songs by different producers — three versions of “Room,” two of “Muscle” — you can compare and contrast not just the originals with the remixes but also the remixes with one another. In the end, though, the real winner is Todd, whose regal contralto and strange, subtle melodies hold their ground in even the most intrusive recontextualizations.
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