I heard Espers and Animal Collective at around the same time. I’m still unsure as to whether that was a blessing or a curse, as the two are now forever tenuously linked in my mind, but it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. While Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs blew a fuse in my mind with its psychedelic campfire songs, Espers’ self-titled debut quieted my mind with a different, more serene version of what some people consider the same genre. To me, Espers are the Jekyll to AC’s Hyde, the calm, quiet, and controlled folk which could turn at any moment, the strength within felt yet hidden, a restrained beast trying to find its way out, its master at the reins, keeping it in check. That’s not to say that Espers’ music is like Sigur Rós, placid one moment, explosive the next. It’s more to say that their music is intricate, complex and atmospheric, like dark clouds hanging stationary in space, ready to drop its moisture at any given notice.
The sophomore release from the Philadelphia collective, now boasting six members (up three from the debut), is a eclectic mix of covers, giving further evidence that the group’s brand of folk is influenced from a variety of sources. Two traditional folk songs are included here, the opener “Rosemary Lane,” sung to beautiful effect by Meg Baird, and “Black is the Color,” which is a song, like the Espers, that is forever `colored’ in my mind. The first time I heard this traditional folk number was on a Smothers Brothers album (no, I’m not that old, they belonged to my late uncle). However, in their version, Tommy Smothers, playing the dolt, sings, “black is the color of my love’s true hair,” rather than “true love’s hair.” Espers’ version is sweet and beautiful enough to almost make me forget the joke that I at first anticipated upon hearing it. One of the best songs on the mini-album or EP or whatever you want to call it, is “Tomorrow,” a cover of a song by Durutti Column (aka Vini Reilly, one of the first alongside Joy Division to be signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records) from his album Circuses and Bread in 1985. Greg Weeks and Meg Baird singing his lines “All I wanted was your time / All you ever gave me was tomorrow / And tomorrow never comes” followed by what sounds like flute and recorder is subtle, tender and haunting.
Nico’s “Afraid” follows and is the equal to the previously mentioned track. From her 1970 album Desertshore, her third after leaving the Velvet Underground, the song is a perfect fit for Espers. Strings and acoustic guitar fit together seamlessly with a high pitched xylophone and feminine vocals. “Blue Mountain” is a stunning piece originally written by Greenwich Village underground folk legend Michael Hurley (in 1964), who spent some time with and lent some songs to Holy Modal Rounders. HMR has been name dropped quite a bit when referring to today’s folk artists including Espers, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens. The `psychedelic’ tag earns its mention with their cover of this particular song, complete with strange electronic production flourishes. An unlikely cover appears with Blue Öyster Cult’s “Flaming Telepaths,” from their Secret Treaties album, released two years before they broke big with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” Keyboards and dual vocals lead to the creepy atmosphere, making this sound like the Kings of Convenience covering Zeppelin. The arena rock sound can be heard just under the surface, coming out in subtle guitar strums and measured drumming.
The album closes with “Dead King,” the only Espers original, but as the last song on the EP shows just how the collective incorporates the varied sounds to which they just paid homage. Folk, rock, psychedelia and post-punk pop all collide in the track, which acts not only as a bookend, but as a `to be continued,’ an ellipsis to what will be the next album from the Philadelphia folksters. The Weed Tree is more than just an appetite whetter, however, it is a recording that is better than most of its full-length counterparts. After their first two releases, I know that I’ll be investing in every Espers’ endeavor from here forward.