A self-described “baroque” American pop/rock band, Vespolina includes Athens musicians Kaitlin Jones on bass (Kaitlin Jones & The County Fair), songstress Holly Belle on keys, Chris Ellenburg (ex-Southern Bitch, Tony Tidwell) on drums, and AJ Griffin on guitar. A bit of an under-recognized supergroup, the band members are longstanding friends whose former groups have performed together, shared members, and each has played an essential role in their other projects. Vespolina’s no different. Says Aaron: “I respect everyone in the band and it’s been fun to bring in my new material and have a hands-off approach to these songs. I got to sort of sit back and let everyone fill in their respective parts. There is a freshness to making something with a new group of people.”
The resulting record, borne from the ashes of dissolved bands, struggling artists in a college town, and personal disasters, is riveting. Covering a wide range of sounds, tempos, and emotions, Vespolina is a mature and varied work. Kicking off with the upbeat, punchy “Between You & Me” the songs flow through the slow-rolling, heavy sound of “Pins & Needles”, reminiscent of an electric take on Gillian Welch’s “Time (The Revelator)”; the breezy “The Song” (suggestive of a possible outtake from your favorite Wilco album); on to the harmony-laden highlight “Striking Distance”; the haunting, dark Pink Floydian organ of “Moan”; and onward to the rhodes piano driven, electric fuzz, and fiddle-colored ballad “Don’t Fail Me Now”. The record closes with the spoken-word echo, train engine chug, and noise swelling “I’ve Had Nights Like That!”, taken from Michael Stipe’s playbook a la R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Kaitlin Jones’ and Holly Belle’s floating, atmospheric harmonies are on show here, adding ethereal textures throughout the songs. Bonnie Prince Billy, Pernice Brothers a la The World Won’t End, Jackson Brown’s Late for the Sky, The National’s Alligator, and even Beach Boys Surf’s Up all come to mind amongst this record’s parts.
Vespolina is a no-holds barred expression of yearning, resignation, and love, as Aaron confronts new love, the comforts and uneasiness of commitment, and the fragmented nature of things. “I wrote a song about writing songs. They’re about a deeper need,” sings Aaron in “The Song”. The distance, pain, and ultimate acceptance in “Green Eyes” is palpable. “Where are you tonight? Wish I was holding you close/ but I suppose that’s just how it goes” he sings from afar. Jones and Holly Belle glide in for the closing moments of imperfect togetherness: “So lay back, rest your head on my lap”. Questions and second-guessing continue in the next track, the standout “Striking Distance”. “I’ve made up my mind but I’ve made a mistake”, Aaron worries, adding “… we’re all looking back now/ second glances.” An unsettling, yet powerful resolution is on hand here in the epic swell of voices and horns in the song’s final moments: “In this lion’s den I offer no resistance/ for I am Daniel within striking distance/ calling out on my own/ calling out all alone.”
Fittingly, lyrical and musical fragments and motifs carry over from one song to another, each track serving as a piece of a larger canvass- dark, yet deeply human. It is a record of powerful immediacy and no pretense. No longer colored with the harmonicas, banjos, or pedal steel common in Timber’s work, Vespolina channels emotion in indie rock fashion. Against a backdrop of thick organs, the electric crunch, fuzz, and reverb of guitars, sweet harmonies, the occasional tasteful blanket of horns, and the hard pulse of the rhythm section, Aaron delivers a heartfelt and memorable performance with a hint of Bill Mallonee in his vocal delivery. Ornamental sonic textures float inside a number of the songs, recalling the production work of Brain Deck. But Aaron’s at the helm here, recording and engineering the record at his Alysseum studio in Athens. The brights are accentuated, blazing, and the darks darker.
Vespolina achieve precisely what they intended to create. Says an understated Aaron: “We wanted to make a little pop record. We wanted to make a record that didn’t sound like a country or folk record.”
Flagpole Magazine called Vespolina “a highly enjoyable listen… with a twinge of uneasiness.” That’s not entirely mistaken. Vespolina’s intensity and thickness may be unnerving given a deep, close listen, but it’s a diverse and majestic collection that speaks truth. Like a nervous wreck presenting itself as being cool, calm, and collected, or a jigsaw puzzle thrown against the wall, and, somehow, surviving intact. In Vespolina there is hope. There is raw emotion and darkness, upbeat and slow. It’s about “a deeper need”, Aaron sings of his songwriting. The record faces the world and, unlike the magician of the first track, “Between You & Me”, offers no mirage, no trickery. Like a smokeless mirror, Vespolina reveals the world back unto itself.
From the melancholy to the explosive, Vespolina charms and croons the ornate songs that will break your heart.
1. Between You & Me
2. I Don’t Love You
3. Pins & Needles
4. The Song
5. Green Eyes
6. Striking Distance
9. Don’t Fail Me Now
10. I’ve Had Nights Like That!