The BBC documentary Hotel California: L.A. from the Byrds to the Eagles includes one particularly awesome (and really quite hilarious) scene with Graham Nash. He's looking back upon the ye olde hippie days when he and his denim-clad pals were hanging in Laurel Canyon and digging all those now-classic folk-rock albums. "You smoked a big one," he proclaims. "You took the shrink wrap off a record. You put the record on the record player. And you were gone."
Nash was yapping about exactly the kind of album San Francisco's Vetiver has been trying to create for the last five years: a warm, inviting take-you-for-a-ride listening experience. "Records from [the early 1970s] have a combination of sincerity, musicality, tunefulness, and really great-sounding recordings," explains Andy Cabic, the group's lead singer, songwriter, and all-around artistic core. "For me, it's hard to even think of a bad record from 1972."
Vetiver hasn't truly nailed this brand of transformative album — although it has come close — until the release of Tight Knit. Where its predecessors (including 2006's To Find Me Gone) relied too heavily on druggy reverb and spaced-out moodiness to sustain their appeal, this record is a textbook example of folk-rock as craft: simple yet well-constructed compositions, elegant arrangements, and slyly efficient musicianship all working together to carry listeners from beginning to end.
The reasons for Tight Knit's success might be found in the 12 or so months preceding its release. First, Vetiver recorded Thing of the Past, an all-covers album featuring tunes from folkie greats like Michael Hurley, Iain Matthews, and Townes Van Zandt. Then the group served as ex-Jayhawk Gary Louris' backing band for his excellent Vagabonds album and tour. These opportunities were more or less apprenticeships. Learning, playing, and recording songs composed by master songwriters helped Cabic and his band acquire new skills, as well as further hone those they already possessed. It's the same process their heroes used in learning to make music, from Bob Dylan spending the first few years of his career mastering old folk tunes, to early Fairport Convention playing cover songs at the pub night after night, to Nash and the Hollies obsessively studying American rock 'n' roll and soul.
Cabic generally agrees with this assertion, but he also stresses several key differences with Vetiver, including the realities of the band's long-distance situation. He calls the Bay Area home, while his bandmates live in New York and North Carolina. "We're not tight in the sense that we have a practice space," he admits. "I wish we had that, because we'd be on an entirely different level."
He might be right. Yet the Vetiver of To Find Me Gone could never pull off Tight Knit's "Through the Front Door." That band didn't have a firm enough grasp of restraint for what not to play. With a narcotic strut the group has never before attempted, Vetiver filters dreampop and West Coast soft rock through gooey New Orleans R&B, à la Allen Toussaint. This latter quality (another first) seeps into Cabic's voice. His hushed, woozy whisper feels more a child of the sticky floodplains down South than the headlands spilling into the Pacific Ocean. "A couple songs were inspired by [Toussaint's] arrangements on Southern Nights," he says. "There's a languid quality that suits what I try to do."
That word "languid" is tricky. Mellow, yes. But there's nothing listless or weak about "Through the Front Door" — or the rest of Tight Knit, for that matter. If that were the case, the record wouldn't be capable of taking you for such a ride.