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+ {Greg Weeks} + {The Valerie Project}

Arguably the greatest and most influential neo-folk act to emerge from the States in the post-millennium era, Philadelphia via Rochester’s ESPERS (aka singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Greg Weeks, singer Meg Baird and Brooke Sietinsons) have expanded the sounds of 60s-styled baroque-folk into blissful pastoral chamber-pop – think SANDY DENNY fronting early MAGNA CARTA or PENTANGLE.
The eponymous ESPERS (2004) {*9} is as creepy as it is dreamy, light and airy, their cosmic manifesto shining through on opener `Flowery Moontide’, `Riding’, `Voices’, `Hearts & Daggers’ and `Meadow’; `Travel Mountains’ probably stretches the weirdness into COMUS territory while conjuring up the odd spell. Yes, it’s that good.
Marking time until their follow-up, mini-set THE WEED TREE (2005) {*6} embraced three new members into the fold, namely Otto Hauser (percussion), Chris Smith (bass) and Helena Espvall (cello). With a running time of 35-minutes it was hardly an EP as stated in many review blogs, but one supposes that fitting only one new song `Dead King’ alongside six covers probably constitutes some sort of demotion as album `II’ was nearing completion. On the trad side there were `Rosemary Lane’ (once the procurement of BERT JANSCH) and `Black Is The Color’, while choice cuts gravitated from DURUTTI COLUMN (`Tomorrow’), BLUE OYSTER CULT (`Flaming Telepaths’ – all 10 minutes of it!), NICO (`Afraid’) and MICHAEL HURLEY (`Blue Mountain’).
The aforementioned ESPERS II (2006) {*8} surfaced from the Drag City stable of stars, Weeks and Baird developing a rather composite interplay on dreamlike vox and instrumentation, the repeated `Dead King’ overshadowed somewhat by the heavenly, funereal opener `Dead Queen’ – a beauty indeed that breaks out into RICHARD THOMPSON-esque fuzz guitar licks. `Widow’s Weed’ is another from the eerie hippie fortress of folk-rock – without the key don’t bother to get in as it’ll blow your mind; other wondrous post-apocalyptic dirges to try are `Cruel Storm’ (Baird rises like a female phoenix), `Children Of Stone’ and `Mansfield And Cyclops’.
Meg, Greg, Helena, Brooke, and Otto returned for another stab at recreating Brit-folk in their own inimitable freak-folk style courtesy of ESPERS III (2009) {*8}. With their balladry a tad shorter and spread over a few more tracks, the mood switches from melancholy to mind-warp at the turn of a chord change; songs to die for this time stem from `Caroline’ (think VELVET UNDERGROUND with JACQUI McSHEE at the helm), `I Can’t See Clear’ and `The Road Of Golden Dust’), `The Pearl’ and the medieval musings of `Meridian’.
When GREG WEEKS wasn’t running his ESPERS collective, he was employed as a prolific producer, seasoned session man and solo star in his own right, although the freak folk side was barely at the forefront of his string of albums and mini-sets; his obvious inspirations come through dead heroes TIM BUCKLEY and NICK DRAKE. FIRE IN THE ARMS OF THE SUN (1999) {*7}, mini-set BLEECKER STATION (2000) {*6}, AWAKE LIKE SLEEP (2001) {*7} – featuring a cover of JACKSON BROWNE’s `These Days’, BLOOD IS TROUBLE (2005) {*6} and THE HIVE (2008) {*6} were equally important acquisitions to his bulging fanbase.
BAIRD, ESPVALL and SHARRON KRAUS, meanwhile, delivered the trad-biased `Leaves From Off The Tree’ (2006) {*6}, a splendid effort for folk-purists. MEG BAIRD’s solo work has seen three albums of class, `Dear Companion’ (2007), `Seasons On Earth’ (2011) and `Don’t Weigh Down The Light’ (2015).
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Jun2015

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