(Vassals tearing it up on the third night of their August residency at Pianos)
I’m self-consciously aware that I shouldn’t begin this essay about a band, not my own, with the first personal pronoun because it’s just in bad taste and an insult to quote un quote objective music writing, but I really don’t see any way to square this circle w/r/t my personal connection and history with the band, Vassals, so I’m just going to have to capitulate and go with it (the personal pronoun issue) since this is a blog and whose archetypical structure is predicated upon an uber-promotion of the subjective and also that this story has a beginning that kinda demands I start off with the word, “I.”
So, I tell friends and acquaintances that if you’re in the West Village, you’re likely to find me in two (once three) locations: the restaurant Tremont sitting at the bar reading a book, eating a burger and probably talking up whomever is next to me or Cafe Minerva just next door, where I’m tipping back black tea, reading different books than the ones at Tremont but mostly just engaging in a good ol’ bull session with my favorite guys in the place - Bill, Ian, Jeff (in absentia) and Shay Spence.
I got to know Shay through our mutual love/appreciation/fascination/knowledge of music and Shay knows its history down cold and we can usually trade back and forth factoids on the 1960s soul music Pandora usually promotes on the Minerva sound system around the 9-10pm hour. I would stand and talk to Shay so much in Minerva that people would look at me and motion to me for their checks. Not joking. I knew Shay spent some time at Berklee but it wasn’t until a matter of months ago that he let me in on his own musical pursuits with a band called Vassals (and this was AFTER I sent along my shitty demo his way first. Talk about modesty, man, his stuff is killer and he didn’t even force it on me right away).
Shay tuning up before the show
Anyway, I was sitting at table 12 (yes - I know the place that well) when Shay slipped the bands’ website to me and after giving a good listen under a pair of still-serviceable 10 year old Bose headphones, I came up from my auditory retreat with the very eloquent synopsis of “Holy Shit!”
We'll get to the tunes, but let's give a little history first. Vassals formed a little over a year ago in Brooklyn featuring Shay Spence on bass and vocals, Jeff Fettig on guitar and Jon Smith on drums. The backstory is pretty interesting, so rather than give it the short shrift I'll let Shay explain:
Jeff and I were roommates while he was finishing Berklee and I was dropping out. We didn't really play music together then, and he moved to New York while myself and the rest of our roommates moved to Los Angeles, September 2009. I move to New York a year later and met Jon, who had become a good buddy and engineering partner of Jeff's. In January '11, Jeff left New York for a month to travel; I sublet his room in Bushwick to demo some new songs (in addition to having a great protools setup, Jeff also has a penchant for impulse buying various instruments. My demos from that month feature Jeff's banjo, mandolin, xylophone, pump organ, multiple accordions, and a very out of tune fender rhodes). When he returned, I showed Jeff what I had been working on. He dug it, got Jon to come over, and we began arranging my chamber-pop little songs into three-peice bangers. I don't know why we became such a loud band, maybe we were a little weary of the singer/songwriter & ensemble aesthetic that was trending in the musical circles (i.e. Bon Iver) and maybe it was just so damn cold that winter, and so damn hot that following summer, and rent was so damn high, and we kind of rediscovered our teenaged angst together.
Vassals performing "A Curse" at Pianos on the Lower East Side in Manhattan
Early on in “A Curse,” one of the songs from Vassals’ EP released in 2011, Shay sings, “Every block’s newspaper box says Fall will be here soon,” a line, when you repeat it to yourself, reveals a striking cadence of near iambic hexameter with internal rhyme. Now, usually a line of iambic hexameter seeks its concluding couplet, though none can be found here.
For a piece of poetry this lack of conclusion would be problematic, but for a song like this it makes sense, a tipped hand to the notion that these songs often stand on a sonic and structural precipice, their short three minutes climbing in intensity and then plateauing, only to repeat the process again until you are led to a cliff and pushed over into a chorus that acts as a tension-releasing free fall, which finally lands you at the bottom of a Sisyphean trailhead where you repeat the journey again.
Musically, it is probably easy to peg Vassals’ songs as an update of the Pixies’ quiet/loud binary opposition (and when you listen live - they are LOUD), but so much more can be found here in terms of the songs’ restraint, craftsmanship and lyrical dexterity. From start to finish, Vassals’ songs often grow in intensity from buoyant initial verses to bruising choruses, though upon close listening underneath a structure of pop melody remains. Even in the caustic, feedback-drenched choruses there is that insulating force of hummable melodies, channelling the charged energy of the songs like those overhead power lines carrying electricity across the country.
The payoff, then, to the musical restraint of Shay’s songs is that the pop tendencies never become sentimental or cloying. Instead, they, the pop tendencies, are intertwined helix-like with the intensity of the music and a darker touch of lyrics. Note how in their latest single, “Informers,” the interations choruses throughout the song go from a sweetly sung “off to bed, dear,” to a harsher “come to me, dear” and finally, in the last moments of the song, “on my knees, dear,” is sung with painful fervor.
At the end of the third night of their Pianos August residency I turned around from the front row with my camera and saw the crowd behind me had basically quadrupled in size since the beginning of the set. While there are always a few stragglers to any given show I highly doubt 75% of the final crowd happened to be stuck waiting for a delayed F train before the first song commence. It doesn’t take too much cognitive horsepower, then, to figure out that a good portion of the crowd was drawn in from Pianos' larger, siphoned-off bar area during Vassals’ set through the sounds coming off from the stage, resulting in a large mass that resembles, interestingly, the final overwhelming seconds of a Vassals song.
You’ll hopefully have to make you own conclusion as you listen to the music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you are drawn in, too.
On a sidenote, I've FINALLY joined Twitter so you can follow me @KudosKudlow where 30% of my output will be pop culture theories (DuckTales was Reagan-era propaganda is a favorite invention of mine - the lucky dime was so representative of anti-progressive tax policy) and 40% will be focused on finding links between high literature and not so high stuff (Shakespeare invented the bromance, the link between Chaucer and Dumb and Dumber (fart jokes, basically)), etc. And... I don't know what the other 30% will be yet.