Though San Francisco outfit Ray’s Vast Basement—so named after a fictional 100 million year-old cave on the Crimson Bay peninsula in California, which includes a faux documented timeline of its perpetual discovery since 4,000 B.C.—carries with them the weight of their self-imposed highbrow edge that might seem off-putting to even the most literati of indie-folk devotees, the group is now into their third album and have managed to stay rather poised in front of the eye of more than a few west-coast critics. Their latest release, Starvation Under Orange Trees, is no less far-reaching in its scope, although it steers clear of their namesake’s saga that drove their first two albums. Expanding a score frontman Jon Bernson wrote for the Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ray’s Vast Basement continues to mesh their bucolic rockabilly with a flare for the dramatic.
Even so, Starvation plays much better as a nod-off reference guide to Midwestern folk sensibilities and the works of Steinbeck (each track relates to one of the author’s specific novels) than the wonderfully ornate landscape it seeks to be. Tracks like “California’s Gone,” a breezy lament to the sun-beaten land and parched orange groves, and the brushed drum swell of “Ocean Notes” are intriguing in their own right for their hazy background piano interludes that well support Bernson’s breathy vocals. For as much as Starvation is rooted in theatrics it has no sweeping chronicle akin to Steinbeck, or even a drawn-out Woody Guthrie dustbowl tale. Where the album may have benefited from its own musical plot twists, it acts more as a gloomy backdrop concerned with dry character studies for secondary roles, playing more like a series of subplots whose only symbiosis is its mercurial atmospherics.
The mini-epic “Black Cotton” comes closest to fulfilling that need, but is cut short at just less than three minutes to keep from coming full circle, only to close with the slow dance of “Annalisa,” the steady acoustic strum of which merely drifts to its unadorned conclusion.
None of this is to say that Ray’s Vast Basement hasn’t created somewhat of a minor masterpiece with Starvation inasmuch as its production value is obsessive in its noticeably patient arrangements. In fact, the most haunting moments on the record likely belong to the back-up vocals of Anne Marie Taylor on “The Story of Lee” for her wailing nasal vibrato or Bernson’s found-sound loops that add indispensable complexion to the soundscape. It’s a record that demands to be taken in modest doses, constantly checking too high expectations with a consistent, although at times regrettable, low-key trajectory.
No one hits up the theater for a cast of even-keeled performers whose expressions rarely change. But for Ray’s Vast Basement, the story is perhaps one best told with a bit of low lighting and the solemnity of a blank stage.