Perhaps it’d be easier to leave Devendra Banhart out of this, or at least forget forever the moment “folk” was sexed up with the word “freak.” Because folk itself has long been a meaningless concept—seeing that Grammy voters now think of folk music as any acoustic album by an ex-classic rocker, and younger voices as disparate as Ani DiFranco and Jack Johnson are deemed worthy of the title “folk singer” if only because they write their own material and tend to perform solo. Upon the emergence of Banhart and his cohorts, the new genre tag “freak folk” seemed only to connote a well-traveled, idiosyncratic personality working through a collage of traditional song structures borrowed from a wide variety of sources. On his “Little Yellow Spider,” the Venezuelan-cum-Brooklynite Banhart captured Woody Guthrie’s adoration for natural beauty but replaced Guthrie’s utopian leftism with jokiness. Joanna Newsom may boast one of the more mind-blowing lyrical and vocal presences of the past few years, but it’s difficult to uncover in her music much more than the barest thread leading back to Joan Baez or Odetta.
Which is a long way of saying that Andy Cabic’s Vetiver, like fellow members of the freak-folk contingent, is very much on intimate terms with folk music without being of it. On the one hand, Tight Knit, the band’s fourth album, is its most coherent statement yet: a sequence of well executed country-rock songs each singular enough to stand on its own and nod graciously (but not too obviously!) to a proscribed range of influences beginning with late Lennon/McCartney and ending with early Gram Parsons. On the other hand, Tight Knit often comes across as lifeless, studious, ambivalent exercises in a sound that may be known on the cosmopolitan coasts as “Americana” but which has lost all connection to the doings and goings on of regular folk. In short, the people in Vetiver’s songs don’t work, they don’t get angry, they don’t do much of anything besides drift aimlessly and hum these catchy, ethereal little ditties about nothing.
Nearly every song on Tight Knit has something going for it—see the sad, rustling thump of “Through the Front Door,” the wheezing organ-guitar interplay on “Strictly Rule,” and the sun-dappled wash of “Everyday”—but Vetiver have a bad habit of letting their timidity get the best of them. These songs rarely become more than arrangements of neat details and vague lyrics. “Sister” is probably the best cut here because the trembling ambiguities in the song’s words support its spacey accompaniment. When Andy Cabic sings, “Hear my plaintive moan,” and the last word is punctuated by a distant streak of steel guitar, goose bumps of appreciation will well up on the arm of even the most hardened cynic. But Vetiver puts all their chips on such moments of subtlety, and only rarely do the risks pay off. There is such a thing as too much understatement, and Tight Knit features a veritable abundance of scarcities.