Too often it seems those who write about music resort to whittling albums, by means of record reviews, into a pronged rod of divination in an attempt to dowse the well from which the music-makers' inspirations originated. For San Francisco folk-rock locals The Dry Spells, reviews of their debut LP Too Soon For Flowers (Empty Cellar Records) read alike in that the word "witchy" is summarily mentioned in almost every critique and comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, Espers, Citay, Fairport Convention and even Loreena McKennitt drop in abundance like heavy fruit from a burdened bough. It's easy to see the common understanding, as the Dry Spells are comprised of Citay's one-time and sometime players, though they've been at it since before Citay's inception and their esteem for rocking on traditional folk-ballads perceptibly deals in some of the same magic conjured by Espers, sure, not to mention that both bands share a cover of "Black is the Color" between them (Espers play it like a heart-sick maid pining over a years-dead lover, whereas the Dry Spells almost flaunt the tune, fleshing out into a verdant composition worthy of Willow the inkeeper's daughter on Summerisle). They also lend their trademark harmonies to a beguiling cover of "Rhiannon," arguably Fleetwood Mac's most enchanted mom-rock tune (I fancy many a mother-to-be has considered naming a girl-child after such a spirited strain as this), and I have to applaud the effort, as the Dry Spells manage to leave Stevie Nicks' leather and lace leanings intact despite weaving in their own fibrous skeins of alternating folk, rock and light-in-the-dye psyche threads; indeed, the Dry Spells craft complex song compositions not unlike heavy tapestries laden with meaning, tradition and more than a hearts-worth of woeful devotion.
I could go on along these lines of correlation, offering more aural comparisons to the Dry Spells "witchy" ways (imagine Dolores O'Riordan kidnapped by the Deal Sisters meeting a wayward Meriel Barham altogether singing Steeleye Span and the Trees while on a backwoods journey to liberate the hidden mythology of the lost city of Ys via melody and romantic lyricism), but I'll let it be in favor of the band for who they really are: Thalia Harbour (vocals/guitar/melodica/glockenspiel), April Hayley (vocals/violin/melodica), Adria Otte (guitar/vocals/violin) and Diego Gonzalez (bass/oud/viola). However, I would like to take the focus away from the more obvious sounds-likes to indulge in a little examination of what makes this record great under an entirely different lens. The perspective being that their record is, for me, almost the equivalent of a very good read of high fantasy, or at least as good as any old anthologized, oft-told yarn.
From the very beginning of the first song "Lost Daughter," a slow-burning build from Bedouin streaked bass, oud and sandy rattlesnake-like percussion to an almost heavy, beat-driven rock crescendo, the listener is put in a place of choosing between following the ever present, layered harmonies of the lyrical narrative or being swept away by the twists, turns and overall richness of the sound. It's a lot like picking up a book for the first time and deciding whether to glean what you can from its contents by looking at the pictures or simply starting from "Once upon a time..." But who gives a fig what the illustrator makes of the details visually as long as the quality of the literary content is lively enough of its own accord, right? As it happens, listening to the Dry Spells has thrust me back into a literary cocoon where I once again explore my collection of Andrew Lang's Fairy Books of many colors (my favorite of the twelve being the Orange Fairy Book), masterfully illustrated by the adroit H.J. Ford. This anthology, culled from obscure, far-flung folk tales to better-known, traditional fairy stories, mirrors the work of the Dry Spells in my mind in that the music they make is like the perfect pairing of elegant, lyrical storytelling and moody depiction by virtue of thematic instrumentation, the timeless balance of words and pictures. Perhaps this is why Bob Boilen, host of NPR's All Songs Considered has selected Too Soon For Flowers as 2009's album of the year.
Maybe I stretch too far to assume that members of the Dry Spells are as influenced by heady Victorian era storybooks as I am, but all the same, I'd like to think they are. I get definite maybes from songs like "The Golden Vanity" what with its wah-washed, sea-faring sailors' voices, and then there's the contrast of the Scandinavian strings that begin "Evangeline" that yield to sunnier sways as voices sing of loss and of a steadiness as "steady as hard times." In "Batwood" the rapidly plunging violin strains evoke the feeling of falling into a rush wilderness and regret after waking "one morning in a hollow tree," and in "Sruti," quite possibly the most beautiful composition of all, chimes and crystalline rings mingle with ethereal vocal highs that sing of a hand reaching out from the trees, pointing to a sea "where hungry voices were calling." As this record has become available just before the crossroads of the year, a time when most folks are granted leave to hole up indoors as seasonal disfavors dictate, doing their best to make cozy with a hot posset and a good book or an equally good record like this one, I cannot recommend this stellar debut from the Dry Spells enough for your fire-side listening pleasure.
Check out the live video below of the Dry Spells performing the title piece Too Soon For Flowers: