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Old And New With Death Vessel

The music of Death Vessel (a Providence, Rhode Island-based collaboration of Joel Thibodeau, Eric Carlson and Pete Donnelly) reaches far back into the past, beyond the 1960s and 1970s folk troubadours beloved by psyche-folk artists, toward old-time minstrels, hootenannists and string-band itinerants. Cuts like "Mandan Dink," off the new Stay Close on Northeast Indie, feel like authentic relics of another age. From the latticework guitar-picking to the high, lonely vocals, the mood is so old-time that you wait for the pop and crackle of 78 vinyl. Yet on other cuts, such as the glowingly beautiful "Break the Empress Crown," more modern textures and tones permeate the sunny melody.

Thibodeau says that this contradiction — between familiar and antique — is something that fascinates him, not just in music, but in older objects, writing and art.

"Music, but also objects, have this whole other dimension of emotion to them," Thibodeau said. "Some of the issues that people are dealing with in old songs and old writings are things that we don't seem to deal with right now. Of course, there's a continuing emotional sentiment carried over, as far as just humanity goes, but just the type of troubles that you have, or the things you do in your daily life... what we do today is so different."

He added, "A lot of old folk music has this contradictory element, where things can be very pleasing and disturbing at the same time. I don't really know what that's all about, but it ends up being very interesting."

"It's the combination of familiarity and strangeness," agreed Carlson. "You recognize the thing, whether it's an old object or music or writing. You recognize what it is and what it was for and why people were doing it. Still, the fact that it's from this different era makes it strange and allows you to see things about it that you can't see in things from your own time period. It's that removal that adds an element of strangeness, but it's not just the strangeness... it's that it allows you to see these things and feel them in a different way because they're familiar and yet very removed from you."

For instance, the band's first album, Stay Close, now out on Northeast Indie, is illustrated with an altered daguerreotype showing three boys, one unmistakably lying dead in the arms of his brother. Thibodeau's brother and artist William Shaft found the image and added a skeleton's image. The result is disturbing, backward-looking and oddly beautiful, just like the music inside.

Thibodeau is originally from around Kennebunkport, Maine, while Carlson grew up in Ohio. The two met in Boston in the mid-1990s, when both were fully committed to other bands. Thibodeau was playing in the traditionally-rooted Stringbuilder with his brother Alex, while Carlson was in the more modern Purple Ivy Shadows. With both bands slowing down, the two began to talk about working on a project together, something that, as Carlson put it, would combine their very different strengths.

In fact, they ended up with two projects. Death Vessel brought Carlson's strong sense of texture and atmosphere to Thibodeau's tradition-referencing song structures, while Area C harnessed Thibodeau's folk instrumental skills in a more free-form and experimental format. Both bands had two members — Thibodeau and Carlson — creating a bit of confusion for Boston-area bookers. "We would do these different duo shows. It would be myself and Eric and then... myself and Eric," said Thibodeau.

Carlson, meanwhile, was becoming more and more fascinated with older folk music, particularly through the landmark Anthology of American Folk Music. "There was just a fascinating quality to that folk music that had been passed around by generations, but also something that was expressed through musicians who were trying to make it as musicians in their own way in that period," he said. "And just the oddity of the recordings themselves, the sound quality of those recordings, was what made them so captivating. That's always been something that's been important to me, how things sound, the way recordings sound has a lot to do with the effect that it has on me as a listener, and the quality of those recordings and the way music and personalities were expressed through that was very influential for me, and I think... I'm not sure exactly how, but it definitely affected the way that I approach songs that Joel and I were working on together."

Yet while these earlier influences were definitely important, Thibodeau also drew inspiration from more contemporary songwriters, including Tom Waits, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, and Will Oldham of Palace and other bands. "But one of the things that those bands or people all do is to make these songs that obviously have stories that go to them," he said. "And also, all three of those people have a very distinct sound that, again, creates this kind of mood that, it's unmistakable if you listen to any of those bands, who it is. That's partly what makes them great."

Carlson explained that while Thibodeau does most of the initial songwriting, the two of them work closely together to bring melody, mood and instrumentation into alignment. "We take those bones of it, the essential elements of the song, and really spend a lot of times trying different ways and just exploring the different possibilities within those parts and trying different things over," he said. "When we are playing together, it's just exploring the different ways that we can play our instruments together. That's essentially leading to the finished idea."

On Stay Close the pair also drew on the talents of a number of like-minded musicians. Pete Donnelly, who appears on nearly every track, singing and playing bass and drums, recorded the album. Micah Blue Smalldone, who like Thibodeau is originally from coastal Maine, contributed his intricate, traditionally-rooted guitar-picking to two tracks. Stand-up bass came from Brendan Skwire, who also plays with Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, while Laura and Meg Baird (who also is a member of the Espers) provided gorgeous backing vocals.

The songs range from very traditional ("Mandan Dink" "Tidy Nervous Breakdown") to sunnily lyrical ("Break the Empress Crown") to more rock-oriented. "Blowing Cave" blends an Appalachian minor-key guitar pattern with distorted electric guitar slashes for one of the album's most intense and striking tracks. Thibodeau says that the idea for this track came from his boyhood home. "I grew up in Maine, and apparently pirates in Maine weren't able to bury treasure in the sand, so they would actually bury it in caves," he explained. "The town that I grew up in in Maine has this place called 'Blowing Cave,' which is this hollowed-out little cave, supposedly a pirate cave."

Cerberus Shoal's Chriss Sutherland, who knows Thibodeau from his Stringbuilder days, said, "Joel has a little Neil Young in there, with a mix of Carter Family and Bill Monroe. Maybe he sings indie grass." He added, "He is adorable and his voice is angelic. On a good night, if you're open to it, Joel can really take you away."

Thibodeau says he has already started working on a new record, which will most likely be recorded this winter, with Donnelly again, in a studio in Philadelphia. He is also playing a few shows throughout the Northeast. Check the band's Web site (www.deathvessel.com) for confirmed dates.

If you go, though, don't yell out any requests for "Girl From the North Country" or "My Back Pages." A recent Dylan-themed show in Boston, timed to coincide with an exhibit of newly rediscovered photos of the artist from 1964, left Thibodeau literally speechless. "I think that Dylan's a great songwriter that has had a really big impact on a generation, and that's obviously carried over. His voice is so strong, and his music is so strong and enigmatic, to play his songs is very strange to me. So I was going to do 'Love Minus Zero,' and I got to the second line and I... drew a blank." An unusual event for one of new folk/bluegrass' most assured and unusual new voices. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, December 20, 2005]

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