Despite their new record “The Future Will Destroy You” being their sixth long player, somehow it always feels necessary to introduce or re-introduce Viva Voce every time they put out something new. Calling them forgettable is probably not the right thing to say, especially since they’re written a number of great and memorable songs, but they never seem to get enough press or notice for them. Consider them a bit of a lost treasure then, one of those secrets that if you know about them, your life feels just a little bit richer as a result. In fact, you’ve likely heard Viva Voce before whether you know it or not. Their songs have appeared in a number of popular TV shows from “Friday Night Lights” to “One Tree Hill”, and like many of those snippets, were enough to make you sit up and ask somebody who the band was before falling back into the plot and not following up properly on it. So as a primer, or a reminder for those that may have forgotten, here’s a snapshot of Viva Voce. The core of the band is made up of Portland husband and wife duo Kevin and Anita Robinson. They were the two there from the very beginning back in 1998, and it’s only been in the last couple years that they’ve added two new members to help flesh out their songs a bit more both in the studio and while performing. But Viva Voce have also done their fair share of label hopping across their catalogue, going from Asthmatic Kitty to Minty Fresh to Barsuk and now settling in with Vanguard for their newest record. They’ve toured with everyone from The Shins to Jimmy Eat World, and even established an alt-country side project called Blue Giant with some of their Portland friends that included Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk (who has since left the group). To call them seasoned musicians at this point is more than accurate, and while it’s not always the case, sometimes the records get better with age.
The best way to describe the sound of Viva Voce is probably folk-tinged psych-pop, which is just a fancy way of saying that while the band can get a little spacey and reverb-heavy in their compositions, they never reach so far out of bounds as to alienate the listener. “The Future Will Destroy You” may not feature their most upbeat collection of songs, but it does have some of their smartest and tightest to date. “Plastic Radio” opens the record with some buzzsaw guitars and a groove that’s just a touch retro and surprisingly danceable. Even more interesting is the way the song is structured, because there are essentially two separate hooks working in fascinating opposition with one another. The first is based entirely around the rise and fall of a fuzz-addled guitar, while the second is purely lyrical with Anita pushing the command to “smash that radio”. In between those things is a strong programmed beat and some funky keyboards that only add to the classic fun. The best thing about it though is how there are no actual verses in the song, but rather just a lot of ping-ponging back and forth between instrumental groove and the sung chorus. It’s a smart move in particular because you wouldn’t notice it unless you were paying very close attention. First single “Analog Woodland Song” is almost normal-sounding by comparison, though the way the guitars get choppy during the chorus adds that psychedelic edge to break out the charm that Viva Voce have become known for. The way the guitars meander in and around a sharp beat on “Diamond Mine” makes for some intense instrumental moments, so much so they pretty much outshine Anita’s reverb-heavy vocals over the first half of the song. Ironically the opposite is true on “Black Mood Ring”, where the harmony-heavy vocals (along with Kevin’s percussion work) dominate over the guitars and anything else that might stand in their way. The second half of the record contains some great tunes as well, the most notable probably being the title track, which chugs along with purpose despite its ominous lyrics and relatively patterned melody. The more acoustic-oriented melodies of “Cool Morning Sun” and “No Ship Coming In” bring out the band’s folksier side, and there’s a beauty and grace about them that isn’t especially present at other points on the album.
What “The Future Will Destroy You” does right is bring together a collection of songs that work very well together and are true to Viva Voce’s sound. That said, though this may be their tightest and most fully formed effort, it does little to advance what we already know about the band. There’s not a lot of exploration or pushing the envelope too far, which after so many years and albums you might come to expect. The small changes to the structure of a couple songs are less new ideas for them and more a return to something that has been toyed with previously. The same goes for the more extended instrumental passages, though they’ve never had so many non-vocal hooks as they do here. The ability to instill a memory of a guitar riff rather than actual lyrics is more challenging than it might appear, so kudos to the band for pulling it off multiple times. Perhaps their sonic experiments were placed more on the Blue Giant record, which tapped into a wholly different aspect of the band’s personality, even if there were a lot more cooks in that kitchen putting that record together. Kevin and Anita Robinson have returned to Viva Voce because the sounds and the lyrics they are writing make the most sense with that project. With some of the most commercially viable songs of their careers as well, one might hope they finally find the extended success they’ve richly deserved for awhile now. It’d be nice if I didn’t have to explain who they are again when their next record gets released.