Review by Thom Jurek
After a two year absence from recording, a covers record is a strange -- and risky -- item to issue by any band, much less one that has been, even at its most cohesive, a loose-knit collection of friends. Nonetheless, Vetiver's one constant member, Andy Cabic has done exactly that with Thing of the Past, a 12-song collection that features tracks by an odd assortment of characters, both legendary and forgotten (including some who shouldn't be). Cabic's touring version of Vetiver has been together since the haunting To Find Me Gone was issued in June of 2006. While the album hosted a wide-ranging cast, including Cabic buddy Devendra Banhart, Noah Georgeson, and others, the road band gelled into a consistent, dependable unit.
Cabic never intended to make a covers record, but with no written material, it just seemed like a good way to get the band in the studio, and to introduce them to Thom Monahan, Cabic's production partner, and get something out in 2008. The core band -- Kevin Barker on guitar, banjo, and vocals, Brent Dunn on bass, drummer Otto Hauser (who also plays keyboards), and Sanders Trippe on guitar and vocals cut most of these tracks live in the studio. Michael Hurley's "Blue Driver," is here (he makes a vocal appearance on it), as is the late Ronnie Laine's arrangement of Derroll Adams' "Roll on Babe." Norman Greenbaum is infamous fore the Jesus freak acid jam "Spirit in the Sky," but it's his joyous "Hook & Ladder" that's on offer here. Iain Matthews' "Road to Ronderlin" is done as a gorgeous country song, with stellar pedal steel picking by guest Dave Scherr. Townes Van Zandt's dark tome "Standin'" is treated here like an outtake from the Grateful Dead's American Beauty album (and yes, that is a good thing). As if this weren't enough, the truly weird prize here is a folked-out choogling boogie of Hawkwind's "Hurry on Sundown!" Loudon Wainwright III's "The Swimming Song" is a natural for a record like this, but this version is perhaps the only weak link on Thing of the Past.
There are some real surprises and obscurities here, too: a reading of the criminally forgotten rock & soul poet Garland Jeffreys' classic "Lon Chaney" is one of the true high points on the album. Based on this rather nocturnal version, it feels like something from the final Big Star album. If Jeffreys hears it, perhaps he'll consider getting his own version re-released. The mix is skeletal and the slow, haunted delivery of Cabic's voice floating just above the piano and backing instruments is sad and chilling. A lonesome violin part played by Emma Smith puts it over the top and simultaneously into the pit of your gut. There is a beautiful take on Canadian songwriter Elyse Weinberg's "Houses" -- from her sole Tetragrammaton album that has been reissued by Orange Twin. Neil Young played lead guitar on the original, and Trippe's guitar part measures up nicely. Besides the Jeffreys cut, the other peak here is the cover of "Sleep a Million Years," by never-known songwriter Dia Joyce. (Cabic found this record in a thrift store bin and loved it. He made copies for all his friends and eventually tracked down her former guitarist, who in turn located the writer, who didn't even have a copy of her own album. Thanks to Cabic, she has one now.) One of the friends who Cabic played this song for was Vashti Bunyan. Being a long forgotten and relatively recent rediscovery of her own (via members of this very same clan of friends), Bunyan heard that subtle but amazing "something" in it that others had heard in her own first album; she sings on the tune here. Her angelic voice blends with Cabic's earthier one to devastatingly beautiful effect. As if all this weren't enough, the disc closes with "I Must Be in a Good Place Now," from Bobby Charles' 1972 self-titled album on Bearsville. Charles is one of the true great American songwriters. He's well known to musicians from the '50s through the '90s; although he's only cut four albums on his own, he has written for dozens of others under his real name, Robert Charles Guidry. The Vetiver version of this song is simple, reverent, deeply moving, and captures the same spirit inherent in the grooves of the original (that album was produced by Rick Danko of the Band). This final number is a beautiful summing up of an album that is an unlikely wonder: a history lesson that feels right, a soulful exercise in song interpretation, and a nearly profound experience for the listener who encounters it.
Thing of the Past succeeds on three different fronts. Certainly, excellent song selection is one, inspired musicianship and arrangements another, but the actual sound of the recording is equally important in putting Thing of the Past across. It is immediate, warm, and very present. Capturing the live takes as laid-back, front porch performances permeates every cut here -- even if some of the songs weren't intended to be cut that way. The feeling is not one of nostalgia, but of the intimacy of friends sharing these songs and passing them as gifts on to one another. And to the listener (who is, by virtue of the close sound and natural setting, invited in completely.) There is a very real sense here of the past melting into the present as a continuum that will never completely exhaust itself, and that makes Thing Of The Past something very special, not only as a covers album, but as a Vetiver recording too.