Ben + Vesper are also known as Ben and Vesper Stamper, a married couple that makes beautiful music together. They follow in the tradition of many other husband and wife duos from Mates of State to Handsome Furs and one of this year’s hot new buzz bands Tennis. What sets Ben + Vesper apart from similar acts? The first and most immediately noticeable thing about them is their extremely liberal use of vocal harmonies. Every single track is a duet in one form or another, and Ben’s deeper, more baritone voice matched with Vesper’s velvety one usually results in inspired beauty on its own. It’s a far cry from the way Mates of State tend to do it, with lots of playful energy that often borders on annoyingly chipper. The harmonies are better compared with the couple records that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan did together, though Ben’s voice isn’t nearly as rough or world-weary as Lanegan’s is and Vesper’s voice isn’t nearly as high and fragile as Campbell’s is. Beyond mere voices though, Ben + Vesper have lovely melodies to work with, some very sparse with maybe only 2-3 instruments total on them, what you might expect from a duo such as this. For their new album “HONORS” though, most of the songs are more vivid and fully realized thanks to a whole lot of extra instrumentation, courtesy of a brand new three-man backing band. There’s also some small bits of orchestration, always played in the most subtle manner possible, and guest performers contributing what they can, including the always wonderful Sufjan Stevens on piano. The final product is something that’s sometimes catchy, frequently weird, but always beautiful.
Vesper takes lead vocals on opening track “Adult vAcA”, a winner right from the intro with its woozy electric guitar and relaxed percussion. Once the first verse begins the melody shrinks thanks to some quiet piano chords, light bass and some cymbal taps, but picks up nicely for a gorgeous chorus that features descending guitar and highlighted vocal harmonies. The lines, “Tomorrow is working out much better today/Notice the thought and date the day” stick well in your head from the first time they’re sung and only cement themselves further the more they’re repeated in the chorus. For the bridge Ben’s vocals are treated with an echo effect that is fascinating unto itself before some ascending guitar and keyboard speed things to a solid conclusion. The bright and energetic way the piano opens “My Father’s Eyes” hints towards the explosion of the full band that comes in mid-way through the first verse. The song winds up having great pacing, along with a well-placed guitar solo and more wonderful harmonies, but it ends up lacking memorability. For all the things it does right, there’s no easy hook or clearly defined structure to the song, which is just a tiny problem when trying to remember what it sounded like hours later. Much better are the soft rock stylings of “Knee-Hi Wall”. Between the shimmering keyboards, funky bass lines and small chorus of backing vocals, the track has a huge 70s vibe to it that turns out to be one of the best moments on the entire album. Minimalism seems to be what “Find Your Friend” does best, beginning with Ben taking his vocals sans-backing melody to a deeper and darker Nick Cave-like range for much of the song. When the instruments do come in, they keep a very low profile, quietly going about their business with only the 60s-style keyboard doing the heavy lifting when it comes to melody outside of the vocals. There’s a subdued beauty to the song that really shines through in the last 90 seconds when the singing stops and the piano comes in to guide everything to a quietly fitting conclusion. “Sugar Song” also holds steadfast with an instrumental contribution so small it almost doesn’t matter if it’s there at all. The vocals are front and center as a piano and guitar are very lightly sprinkled about, though there is a brief moment near the end of the song where a small battalion of violins rises up and ratchets up the intensity for one loud peak of a moment before settling back down into oblivion from whence it came. It’s a rather impressive display of talent, that Ben + Vesper are able to do so much with so little. The final two songs, “Understruggle; Yay, Win” and “HONORS” are both fuller songs instrumentally, but also break out a few things you won’t hear in any other spots on the record. Vesper is back on lead vocals for “Understruggle; Yay, Win”, and there’s a Sufjan Stevens-inspired banjo (perhaps played by Sufjan himself) mixed with some basic acoustic guitar and a touch of organ that bring a folksy charm to the ballad, only aided by a choir of backing vocals. After some twinkling keyboards begin the closing song “HONORS”, it ducks out as the vocals come in and guitars take over. The song itself holds a steady and relatively normal melody until the final minute when multiple keyboards and organs send things soaring into the stratosphere with a whole collection of voices singing triumphantly in unison for one last blissed out moment. It’s a fitting end to a record that thrives on atmosphere and the collective vocal power of Ben and Vesper Stamper.
One of the most unique things about “HONORS” and Ben + Vesper in general are their lyrics. Weird is a delicate way of putting it. Take a song like “Holly Home?” as an example, which begins with a back-and-forth conversation between Ben and Vesper that goes something like this: “Hi, is Holly Home?/No, I mean yes, well she is sleeping/Oh, okay who is this? Is this who I think it is?/If you are guessing this, then you are right in thinking this”. Ben tells a childhood story about how he made a “totally inspiring, and most succinct/it was ahead of its time” movie, but then it got erased when his dad recorded a rerun of “The Fugitive” over it. Um, ok, sounds tragic. And the title track goes on and on about the apocalyptic destruction of our planet due to a massive meteor (or something like that), and somehow celebrities are involved. “High time to hire the balding Bru/Bruce Willis shoots the flame/Goodbye, Shatner sun machine/Hello swarming dreams” is just a snippet of the oddities that song has to offer. Despite such unconventional and nonsensical wordplay, Ben + Vesper sell it with the utmost sincerity, and most of the time succeed in making us believe it’s not a problem. There are other small issues with “HONORS” though, the most notable of which stems from weak song structure. Outside of gems like “Adult vAcA” and “Knee-Hi Wall” are songs that sound pretty nice but drift aimlessly towards a conclusion. There’s not much in the way of repeated choruses with sharply developed hooks or even dynamic pacing to help the record drift by faster. And the majority of the standout moments typically come from some smart use of vocal harmonies rather than the overall composition of the songs. If these seem like pretty big things, well, that depends on how forgiving you’re willing to be, and what about a track appeals to you most. There’s definitely much more good going on with this album than bad, and this is definitely a step forwards for Ben + Vesper in terms of their overall development for the future. Of course so much of this also screams “transitional record”, so the hope is that they reach another plateau rather than spend any more time pushing that heavy boulder up a gigantic hill. “HONORS” may not be worthy of what its title suggests, but with a touch more work they’ll get there soon enough.