It really seems like freak-folk went out with more of a whimper than a bang. A few years ago, there was a plethora of dashikied troubadours injecting all sorts of hard-drug psychedelica into their acoustic guitar strums. While perhaps not on the front line of this movement, Philadelphia, PA’s The Espers definitely laid down some mystically pastoral numbers in the middle of the ’00s. With their third release, III, the group is sloughing off the sun-refracted ethereal and embracing the nocturnal.
The band songwriters Meg Baird and Greg Weeks continue to refine their grasp of quality folk this time around. There’s a slow burning quality to tracks like “I Can’t See Clear,” “Caroline,” and “The Pearl” that hews as close to traditional old English folk as anything in their back catalog. Thankfully, the Espers haven’t become remotely codified in their sound, and tastefully inject synth atmospherics and a couple of rippling guitar solos. “Sightings” has the gorgeously windswept and spacious feeling of Japan’s great Nagisa Ni Te.
Even when the album reaches its more sinister spots, as on the pair of Black Heart Procession-esque mortuary waltzes “That Which Darkly Thrives” and “Meridian,” an almost calming air prevails. The adjective “pastoral” when applied to music almost always connotes a sunny, brightly-hued sound. It’s easy to forget that those pastures still exist at night, and III is a prime document of their beauty.
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