Never mind the definition to which Merriam-Webster gives pride of place — the word "artless" doesn't mean "without art." What it means, as the dictionary eventually admits, if only through its list of synonyms, is "without guile or artifice." Unpretentious. And if you keep that in mind, and remember that those qualities don't necessarily require primitive simplicity or a lack of self-awareness, then you'll have a pretty good insight into why so many people with so many different ideas about what good music is or ought to be are fans of The Vespers, whose artless new album, The Fourth Wall, comes out this week.
The fact is, it's a good deal easier to grasp the appeal that the quartet — sisters Callie and Phoebe Cryar, brothers Bruno and Taylor Jones — has than it is to describe their music. The album gives more prominence to the banjo and other roots-signifying sounds than did its predecessor, but it still manages to work with a broader sonic palette. Kicking off with a moody, almost somber story of redemption, The Vespers serve up, in turn, a chipper, almost sing-song "Flower Flower," an old-time flavored, almost gospel "Instrument for You," and an almost raucous, bluesy "Close My Eyes." And that's just the first third of its dozen tracks. They're not afraid to stick with one sound and one tempo for an entire song — check out the spare piano and strings of the closing "Winter" — but it's apparently not something they like to do. Most of the songs shift gears at least once, introducing new instruments and new melodic and harmonic material as they go, then looping back on themselves in a way that's at once quirky and pleasingly coherent.
Which, really, is where that artlessness comes in. There's plenty of art in this music, and a considerable — maybe even surprising — amount of craft, too. But the initial impulses all seem to be spontaneous and uncalculated.
"We just started playing the things we wanted to learn to play, like I started learning the banjo," Phoebe Cryar offers. "It wasn't planned." And darned if it doesn't sound like it wasn't planned. But it worked out just right anyhow, and not merely by luck, but by The Vespers doing some serious work. So when the girls and guys swap banjos, guitars, basses, ukuleles, mandolins and more between each song, it's more than a kind of amusing game of musical chairs — it turns out that they really know what they're doing, as each one wields his or her ax-of-the-moment, chiming in with exactly the right musical gesture at exactly the right time.
That's a tightrope way of working, but The Vespers maintain a, well, artless serenity that serves to keep them balanced. They're not without focus — Callie Cryar notes that the album "took us almost a whole year, recorded in chunks when we were free," and to make an album this coherent that way requires genuine rigor — but it's modulated almost to the point of invisibility. The artlessness infuses rather than dominates the music. And the result of the combination is a kind of self-assurance that constitutes one of the greatest appeals that a band (or any kind of artist) can have, which explains why they can — and do — appeal almost as much to a bunch of good old boys out in a bluegrass-festival cow pasture as to a hip urban audience.
And the source of that serenity? One might suspect that it comes simply from who The Vespers are, but the kids themselves have a ready answer that takes that notion to a higher level. "We're all believers," Phoebe says. "We're not a Christian band, we're not playing at churches, but it's who we are, and that's why we're alive, so it's hard not to let that come through in our music. We play because we love it, and we're Christians."