Just Like a Woman

The beguiling, gender-bending excellence of Death Vessel

You should go to more shows in the apartments of total strangers. Swap out pissy bouncers and will-call debacles and $18 beers for friendly, bearded dudes who introduce themselves, invite you in, and cheerfully point you toward the fridge, the (clean!) bathroom, and the cozy bedroom–living room–great room–conservatory that tonight serves as the Venue, one-hundredth the size of your Knitting Factories and Bowery Ballrooms and, as you're sitting cross-legged on the floor with a six-pack and soaking up a much welcome nostalgic kindergarten-assembly air, infinitely more enjoyable.

This setting also affords you the opportunity to get a good look at Joel Thibodeau, a/k/a Death Vessel, before you hear him sing, because if you wind up doing the reverse, that shit will mess you up. The Brooklyn folkie is fairly tiny and extremely quiet, with cascading dark hair that catches the film projector's random archival dude ranch footage that our amiable hosts—who've welcomed 100 or so folks into their modest Park Slope apartment, renamed Suite Lorraine on this October Saturday night—are projecting onto the back wall of the "stage," and thus right into Joel's eyes. Nonplussed, he tunes up his acoustic, smiles politely at the crowd that's literally at his feet, deftly fingerpicks a few bars, and opens his mouth to sing, and Jesus Christ, what the . . .

Maybe it's better on paper to hear him before you see him, so let's back up several months to Webster Hall, a massive venue (oh, well) this evening hosting Os Mutantes, the Brazilian '60s weirdos beloved by crate diggers, playing New York City (the entire U.S., actually) for the first time ever. Anticipation is high, and we roll up the staircase as the opening act, a sonorous and delicate female singer-songwriter, is crooning vaguely Old West–evoking folk tunes, clear and bright and distinctly feminine. Intrigued, we round the corner, get a good look at the stage, and . . . oh, shit. It's Joel.

Yes, Death Vessel's press notices to date all note, slyly or explicitly, that the dude sings like a girl. It's a beautiful, offbeat, hyper-articulate voice, but it's tremendously off-putting at first, inspiring equal parts reverence and confusion. Just a few days prior to the Suite Lorraine apartment fete, Joel was praised in the Voice's Best of NYC issue, officially declared, uh, "Best Guy Who Sings Like a Girl."

He rolls with it. "It doesn't bother me," he says, chatting in a Brooklyn bar. "I can understand people thinking it sounds like a girl. I understand when I get that reaction, but at the same time it's something I've been doing for a long time—it's the voice that I hear when I'm trying to sing. It's not meant to provoke or make people feel uncomfortable."

The Suite Lorraine faux kindergarten kids don't look too uncomfortable— eyebrows raise theatrically as Joel first leans into the microphone and croons, "I've been deep in the horchata cup/Far from not just chatter, but shouts/Now that you've dropped the A-bomb," his voice pinching sharply upward on "you've." The polite bewilderment soon fades, leaving the crowd to focus on other things, like trying to remember what the hell horchata means. Sketching low-pitched guitar melodies and chasing them with his octave-leaping voice, Joel sings phrases that often seem chosen more for their multisyllabic grandeur than their literal meaning—he trills through the word balustrade splendidly, joined on his debut record, 2004's Stay Close, by Robichaud, Allagasher, and Mandan Dink. It's the kind of surrealist wordplay you see sometimes in non-native English speakers, but that ain't the case here. Joel's parents are French, but he grew up in Rhode Island and surrounding environs and doesn't actually speak the language: His parents would use it when they didn't want him to understand what they were saying.

Though Joel says he's not trying for a blatantly old-timey or self-consciously retro affect, the dusty tunes on Stay Close naturally skew that way, mostly voice-and-guitar elegies adorned by occasional drums and banjos and enthusiastic backup singers. The self-released disc has earned Joel quite a bit of work as an opening act—the day after the Suite Lorraine gig he shows up as a surprise guest at an intimate Beck benefit show at Angel Oresanz on the Lower East Side. Furthermore, now he's signed to a new label: Sub Pop, which will put out his next record hopefully early next year, a good fit considering the label's similar hushed-intimacy new-folk acts like Iron & Wine. He sounds excited by it all, but not too excited—Joel's voice, though powerful enough to perplex and beguile at the big sheds, is perhaps better suited to smaller rooms, where you can better see what you can't believe.

 
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