Though one might be expecting further artistic evolution from Vetiver on their third full-length album, the band has instead offered up a collection of covers aptly titled Thing of the Past. On their debut LP, colored vibrantly by the presence of friend and frequent collaborator Devendra Banhart, Vetiver tended a warm middle ground between Banhart’s more eccentric freak-folk tendencies and frontman Andy Cabic’s adherence to the conventions of late-‘60s country-rock. Though the band continued to tour with Banhart, his influence cast a less palpable shadow over Vetiver’s sophomore release, the less interesting but consistent To Find Me Gone. Now that Banhart is busy cavorting with Princess Amidala, Cabic and his bandmates have been left entirely to their own devices on their third album, and so the decision to revel in a collection of old favorites instead of producing something more uniquely Vetiverian, whatever that might be, will likely disappoint those who had hoped the band would stake out territory of their own on the admittedly crowded folk-rock map.
To his credit, Cabic has plundered a top-notch vault of tunes, well-chosen gems from canonized balladeers such as Townes Van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright III as well as the long forgotten Dia Joyce and Derroll Adams. Chan Marshall will surely be kicking herself for not getting to Garland Jeffreys’s mesmerizing trembler “Long Chaney” first. Vetiver’s take on “To Baby,” originally cut by Biff Rose, a banjoist and comedian who had a song on Bowie’s Hunky Dory, should win an award for Best Song Resulting From Obscure Vinyl Crate-Digging. Michael Hurley turns up to help the band cover his own gently rollicking “Blue Driver,” which sounds like the best Ryan Adams song Ryan Adams never wrote. A recent analog to the album’s vintage-sounding, strong-from-top-to-bottom presentation is last year’s Papercuts LP, and if I didn’t know it was a collection of covers, I might say that Thing of the Past was an even better reinterpretation of Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era country-rock.
There is an implicit acknowledgment of creative drought, though, that accompanies any album of cover songs. Vetiver has been criticized for wearing their influences too comfortably, and Thing of the Past seems like not an effort to combat those criticisms, but to embrace them. It’s as if Oasis, two albums into their career, had released an album of Beatles songs. This is the subtext to the release of any covers album, no matter how well executed, that cannot be shaken off. Pop singers may do it all the time, but when a rock band, especially one as unproven as Vetiver, blows an album’s worth of studio time to sing other people’s songs, they are begging you not to take it seriously.
Unfortunately for Vetiver, firmly-held notions of authenticity will be a stumbling block between most listeners and their enjoyment of Thing of the Past. Unlike Cat Power, who eliminates that block on her own covers albums by virtue of her stunning pipes and the way she deconstructs songs until they are unrecognizable, Vetiver plays pretty faithful reproductions of the originals here. So Vetiver, a band with loads of potential yet to be fully realized, can’t help but come across on Thing of the Past like a well-orchestrated coffeehouse act with unusually exquisite taste. That is a shame, but our patience is not quite expended yet.