The Staves - If I Was

by Sam England

After a perfectly timed three year gap since their debut album, The Staves have just released their sophomore effort. “Effort,” a word easy to doubt in the case of If I Was, as the band’s seamless ability to create complex vocal soundscapes seems so incredibly effortless, a genetic gift bestowed upon the three sisters. However, it’s clear that the trio have put a great deal of work into the project, building upon the foundations of their natural talent to forge something quite special.

The album is without a doubt a progression from the siblings’ previous work. This is immediately evident within the second minute of opening track, Blood I Bled, which after introducing strong drum beats and a grand brass section, makes clear the new dramatic production style that has been adopted. The musical progression is most apparent though on the fifth song, Black & White, which is a brief guitar solo away from being an outright blues-rock piece.

Long standing fans of The Staves do not fear however! Whilst this album is certainly a progression, it is not a departure. The girls have still kept what they are most famous for, stunning three-part harmonies that only those who share the same blood and upbringing could master. If this is what appeals to you, consecutive tracks No Me, No You, No More, and Let Me Down are for you, with the latter containing an exquisite cascading vocal melody in the chorus. The initial minutes of Damn It All also contain some prime examples of stellar harmonic work.

Of course, it can’t be left unmentioned that the producer of If I Was is none other than Bon Iver’s lead musical genius, Justin Vernon. Whether it be in the context of DeYarmond Edison, Bon Iver, or Volcano Choir, arguably Vernon’s most cherished quality is his ability to convey such vivid emotion through his vocals. As such, this album serves as a really interesting experiment as to see how Vernon performs musically when it’s not his voice, or his stories, at the focal point.

It seems to have been a successful experiment. There’s a charming mini-documentary available on The Staves’ YouTube channel that gives an insight into the making of the album, but it’s clear that the working relationship between the band and Vernon was a strong one. It’s fairly obvious that Vernon not only cares about the music he’s making with The Staves, but actually treasures them as people too. That kind of caring between musicians can only lead to a meticulously produced record, and by and large that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Vernon has really done well to foster and grow the girls’ sound, without forcing them out of their own style. The music is still distinctively The Staves, but you hear these occasional ephemeral signatures of Vernon’s style, floating in and out. Like the For Emma-esque acoustic e-bow on Sadness Don’t Own Me, or the horns that sprout up throughout the record that are rather reminiscent of Bon Iver’s eponymous effort. Of course they only serve to better the record’s sound, at no point do they seem out of place or forced.

It would be silly to say this album is perfect though. I do find that some of the vocal melodies are a bit weird, and they become ever so slightly annoying after repeated listens. There are also some tracks where the vocal backing just doesn’t seem to blend as smoothly as you’d expect from The Staves. The extended vocal drone in the background of Black & White, for instance, really does grate on me. One last mildly irritating thing is the interlude section to Steady, which has some alternating vocal parts between the girls that I can’t help but feel sound like they were written in as an afterthought. That part of the song just isn’t that good in my opinion. It’s a shame because were that section not present, Steady, would be one of my favourite songs on the album. This is all nit-picking, of course.

My personal favourite tracks include Let Me Down, simply for that genius harmony-laden chorus. Make It Holy is probably my outright favourite; it features Vernon himself on backing vocals and overall is a strikingly brooding song. The same can be said for the closing track, Sadness Don’t Own Me, which whilst being one of the more understated songs on the record, actually conveys emotional better than any, and is truly a beautiful piece. Then of course, Damn It All – one half delicately laced with harmonies, the other a brutally passionate crescendo. To conclude, in some ways If I Was is a stunning record in its own right, while showing that The Staves have no intention of staying static in their style. No doubt this one will bring them even more fortune and opportunities than their debut did.