On espoused duo Ben + Vesper’s debut LP All This Could Kill You, the opening track “Door to Door” portrays a jittery Prufrock character looking for the nearest window out of what seems to be some white collar dinner party. Crooned by Ben Stamper’s languid baritone, he thinks to himself, “Go on, introduce yourself or they will do it for you.”
From what little notice this album has received thus far—despite being well-crafted and one of the most incredulously honest portraits of familial life to have emerged in recent music—that line is given rather undue notice. It is, admittedly, attention-grabbing and conveniently within the first minute of play. But while there is a negative streak aplenty throughout the album’s 13 tracks that scoff at the virtues of day jobs and less than affable county clerks, what stands out most is the delicate attention that is given to the oblique day-to-day fray.
Tracks like “8 Mo.” that doll out the mandatory praise of a pregnant “women-to-be,” or “An Honest Bluff” that deals with maxed-out credit cards and the grades of slacker kids, better say what it is this husband-and-wife team know best. That includes the endless chore of sorting through “stacks of slips and memos left for the dead” that slowly settle and petrify into a “bloody monument” that causes the couple to blurt in unison, “I want to live in the country.”
The album’s finale, “When Life Strikes,” relays their simple musings: “Who knows the true weight of the newborn?/ Who knows the temp of an outdoor pool?” In the hands of most, such minutiae of home life might be handled with a great deal of pretension — such as cliché ramblings on extramarital affairs or teenage pregnancy. That is to say it only feels authentic when it actually is authentic; it can’t be faked, at least well. And if the extension of thanks to their “families and our babysitters” found in the liner notes is any clue, the determination it took to put these songs to tape was no lurched effort.
Still, were it not for a pinpointed production from Daniel Smith (of psych-pop group Danielson/Danielson Familye) in his New Jersey studio, Stamper’s throaty vocals could have very well stripped these otherwise carefully pieced songs into bland, atonal drifts. Without Smith’s careful ear, Kill You could have easily slipped into a low-fi mess—not unlike Grizzly Bear’s often overlooked debut Horn of Plenty that greatly compares to its successor thanks to lousy production values—especially during the atmospheric drones of “Force Field” or layered guitar chimes on “The Carnival.”
As is, though, the duo’s subtle hooks and complex (or sometimes seemingly amorphous) structures are brought just close enough to the surface to maintain their mystique, without seeming too riddled. The added timbres from back-up guitarist Joshua Stamper, splashes of marimba from old friend Chris Weisman, as well as members of the Smith family (including Daniel himself contributing finger snaps, whistles and, according to the liner notes, robot dancing), also gave a melodic weight to the very moody and densely introspective ballads.
Perhaps most recognizable among the names is longtime Danielson Famile compatriot Sufjan Stevens, who offered up his trademark banjo plucks, emo piano rushes, and even tossed in a few strains of oboe and recorder. All this to say, Kill You is a difficult album on a number of levels, but one that is at times pitch-perfect, brooding and an obvious labor of love for all involved.
Danielson – Ships
Magnetic Fields – The Charm of the Highway Strip
Yo La Tengo – Summer Sun