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The Staves - If I Was (Review)

The Staves, If I Was

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

THE Staves, aka sisters Jessica and Emily, have delivered a quietly compelling new album in If I Was that marks a major change in sound from their 2012 debut, Dead & Born & Grown.

Recorded over five trips across the Atlantic to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and produced by Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), If I Was takes The Staves’ original blueprint of highly harmonised British indie-folk and gives it an injection of muscle and a much-heightened ambition.

The result is an album that’s never less than interesting, even if some of the starker tendencies threaten to frustrate.

In the main, the album isn’t afraid to strip itself down emotionally and explore some insular feelings. But at times, this is accompanied by a stripped back approach to the instrumentals, which leave you wanting more.

The six minute opus of sorts, Damn It All emerges as a classic case in point. It’s sparse beyond belief for long periods, with just a gentle organ-like hum underpinning Jessica and Emily’s fragile vocals and an air of melancholy pervading throughout thanks to lyrics such as “even though I love you, I want you to know”. The track does eventually pick up halfway through, with a firmer acoustic strum. But even then it strips back down and kind of fades all too easily from the mind.

This arrives in stark contrast to Black and White, one of the LP’s highlights, which may unfold initially in a capella form, before then dropping a robust beat and some plugged in, bluesy guitar riffs that make for an arresting listen. It’s this grittier sound that sets If I Was apart from its predecessor and is something that The Staves will clearly benefit more from going forward. It’s a great song.

Teeth White, similarly, wraps some tender, beautifully realised vocals around some more plugged in guitars and even tip toes into folk-rock territory. The harmonising is also quite lovely, as is the sudden shift into more sharper melodic territory around the minute and a half mark. You can well imagine this one finding a fanbase on both sides of the Atlantic.

That’s not to say the sisters aren’t good when keeping things mellow. No Me, No You, No More may be another example of a stripped back song. But the disarmingly simple chorus is as heartbreaking as it is charming and quietly optimistic (“I’ll be myself again”). What’s more, there’s something autumnal and even cinematic about it.

Notable, too, is the opening track Blood I Bled, which builds and builds until its denouement shifts the song from minor to major and has the effect of the sun burning through the clouds after a storm. Or, in The Staves’ own words, “like the moment Elliott’s bike takes off at the end of E.T.

Horizons is also beautifully composed, offering almost sunshine melodies over more lush harmonies. The horn-piano combo here is particularly memorable.

Hence, while certainly slow in places and occasionally frustrating in the sense that it makes you wait for the finest moments, If I Was nevertheless marks a successful return for The Staves and one that rewards the patient listener.

It’s highlights enable it to soar in places.

Download picks: Black and White, Teeth White, No Me, No You, No More, Horizons, Blood I Bled

Track listing:

  1. Blood I Bled
  2. Steady
  3. No Me, No You, No More
  4. Let Me Down
  5. Black & White
  6. Damn It All
  7. The Shining
  8. Don’t You Call Me Anymore
  9. Horizons
  10. Teeth White
  11. Make It Holy
  12. Sadness Don’t Own Me