Words by Ed King / Gig pic by Paul Reynolds
It’s here. Today, March 23rd, The Staves release their ‘difficult second album’. Often the make or break of an artist, this all important follow up can also be the end of a beginning.
But after significant touring, a growing global audience, stories of cabin fever in Wisconsin, and the odd sonnet to pan Atlantic enamel envy, If I Was brings twelve more Stavely-Taylor tracks out into the world. Seconds out; sound the bell for round two.
It started with ‘Blood I Bled’ – the album’s opening track, which got a generous EP outing back in October last year. Big, brooding drums behind a poignant vocal lead; it was everything good about the Watford born sisters, but with a visceral edge and powerful melody. And whilst I still don’t understand the accompanying video (I can be overly defensive about India) watching it come off stage was genuinely exciting.
It also set a tone, with ‘Steady’ – the second listed album track – reiterating the never distant maturity of The Staves’ compositions. But the success that supported their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, could have been a blessing or a curse, with a seemingly endless tour schedule making another LP appear to be a scheduling challenge if nothing else.
Talks of Justin Vernon behind the mixing desk grew crystal ball commentary, whilst a smattering of live shows brought some showcase to the speculation. But all leaving a quietly questioning audience asking what, and indeed when, would this sophomore sound become?
And now it’s here, If I Was is quite a spectacular achievement; the excitement from hearing their material performed live last autumn has travelled seamlessly across the studio production.
The album’s opener, ‘Blood I Bled’, is a remarkable first song – adopting an atmosphere of thunderclouds and protective strength that underpins the next eleven. But the shape of If I Was is not so obvious (albeit with the Vernon flourish quite prominent in parts) and whilst the words ‘impending’ and ‘sonorous’ could filter this review, it feels there is something much deeper at work than simply appropriated bass drums.
Tracks such as ‘No Me. No You. No More’ and ‘Don’t You Call Me Anymore’ hark back to the days of watching the sun set over December forests, whilst ‘Let Me Down’ and ‘Damn It All’ build testaments to punchy rock riffs and the Spector approach to guitar.
The vocals still lead but acoustic is not always in charge, and even the signature close part harmonies have been shifted and layered – moving away from the sisters on a stool a cappela that started this ball rolling in public. If I Was shows real evolution from this army of three, and the deft avoidance of a trap I suspect they were always too smart (or stubborn) to fall into.
There are some weaknesses; as with any experimentation your need the control and the variable. And whilst If I Was shows encouraging times ahead for The Staves, having excelled an already impressive debut, the claws of collaborations sometimes dig a little deep. Although when it comes to the use of keys, I retract this immediately. Plus at the end of the album any concerns are sedated with perhaps two of the most beautiful goodbyes to ever kiss off an LP.
I once wrote The Staves off with a quip, a hook I’ll be taking myself off straight after this sentence, but If I Was is incontestable in its promise. These are musicians, solid songwriters, in ascent, with a good label and industry support behind them. And so far it’s working well.
They’ve nailed album one, they’ve stamped their footsteps in the snow and cried out proud screams with album two – whatever comes next from the Staverley-Taylors should be taken seriously indeed. With If I Was The Staves have shown not only can the survive this game but that they’ll fight as contenders.
If I Was is out today, March 23rd, on Atlantic Records. For more on The Staves, visit http://www.thestaves.com/