Raise your hands for the Reverie
And they all shall be “Joyful Captives”
The chorus rules all. The songs that capture the public imagination repeat with vengeance, feeding the human mind’s taste for predicability.
If a band chooses, like the Reverie Machine, to eschew this popular device, the onus is upon them to deliver that much more: a mood, lyrics that grab you by the throat, elements that stick with you beyond the initial listen.
And it helps if your vocalist, like Meghan Yates, has a distinctive and powerful voice that can lead a band like any great instrumentalist, teasing out notes and bending songs to her will.
The result is a mix of the National and Norah Jones, or maybe Jolie Holland, rolling waves of rhythm section led by single-note guitar accompanied by artful vocal phrasing. Their debut record, Not By Blood, has been simmering on my iPod for months, finally demanding a full weeks’ worth of listens that have left me wondering why it took me so long to dive in.
They’ve had a slow build in general, grabbing some limelight as part of the last Building of Song in Congress Square ever, back in the summer of 2010, and finally releasing this album in October. They creep up on you, relying not on the hook but on the repetition and cycling of Mordechai Rosenblatt’s electric guitar and thrumming bass, locked in with Elliot Heeschen’s skittering and shuffling percussion.
The album is a dense experience, maybe best personified by “Truman Capote and the Heavy Weight Cloud, Small Town, U.S.A.,” where Yates comes out big in the open, emoting like nobody’s business, with percussive glottal stops, like Death Cab for Cutie two inches from your face.
“We built our world with sticks and shadows,” she sings, and you feel as though, of course, this is a music taken straight from your very marrow, and when the electric guitar solo enters it is spare, broken, esoteric, and hard to grasp. In place of a catchy chorus is a familiarity that makes a chorus extraneous, like the song’s been living inside you for a while and you’re just now recognizing it.
“Owl Skin” is more jazzy, with jittery brushes on the snare and active in the bass, especially. The guitar runs up and down the strings with single notes, jaunty if unsure: “And I could have sworn / That I saw the mark you bore / In the face of the sea / But you weren’t really there.” The head-nodding is near irresistible.
And then you get something as powerful and subtle as “Sometimes,” with Jose Gonzalez classical guitar and a far-off bass like an oncoming storm. When Mark Tipton’s trumpet enters, it’s ensaring, something you can give yourself over to entirely: “I’m just longing for that rock and roll kind of life,” in a way that’s rock and roll in the most philosophical of manners.
You might even mistake it for a jam. “Trendy Love Blues” has a ton of Phish to it, like “Divided Sky” as sung by Billie Holiday. There’s a playful woodblock paired with a moody guitar, and talk of children that haven’t yet come to pass. “Lady of the Sea” reminds of Steely Dan, something that wouldn’t dream of killing your buzz, with a tribal vibe and tambourine to keep them honest. “Little Things” has a military cadence and a bright sustain, with rising pop vocals and a hint of Bobby Darin.
In repeated listens, it can take on a digital feel, even though it’s completely organically created, like Moby meshing those Delta blues recordings with mechanical beats. Yates is of the Earth; her band plays in a hovercraft behind her, a glittering and illuminating background. There are times, as with “Spice,” where there’s an element of Vampire Weekend-style polyrhythms, but the Reverie Machine never get too mechanical or predictable. While songs can cycle and repeat, six-minute songs fly by like wisps, and Yates refuses to let your attention wander.
“And I hope you will join me,” she sings on the closing “Ran Hard,” a gloss on her vocals like blown glass, “I will plan accordingly.” Then a four on the floor enters, about as unobtrusively as that can possibly happen, and the thump turns this into a dance tune, with an ocean of melody in which to swim.
I’m not sure how you could have planned for that.