Andy Cabic’s Vetiverse is a rather splendored thang, suffused with laid-back, sun-dappled folk-rock grooves that will either convert you or kill you softly with easy, breezy melodies and willed anachronism. Fittingly, as election ’08 slinks outta West Virginia and Kentucky with “Dueling Banjos” as the theme, the Tamil-named Vetiver has underscored their purpose of sonic utopia reconstruction with Thing of the Past, a covers disc just in time to soundtrack the looming Summer of Steampunk.
It’s curious that most Dixie-fried adherents of naturalismo (bearded paterfamilias Devendra Banhart’s substitute for the reviled “freak-folk” and “New Weird America” tags) do little to stem their descent from rich heritage into the cesspool of mundane, overly commodified coastal hipsterism. Even if it’s a stop-gap measure addressing artistic restlessness, Thing of the Past fortunately favors Vetiver’s roots by careful attention to the sound of classic soil-and-road narratives, as well as to songwriters cherished and remembered along the Southeastern redneck-savant axis: Michael Hurley (“Blue Driver”), Bobby Charles (“I Must Be in a Good Place Now”), and Townes Van Zandt (“Standin’ ”).
Ain’t much “avant” about dis’ here folk: It’s much more evocative of Pacific Coast Highway easy-rock or the Band’s Woodstock idyll than Folkways purity or prewar rural austerity. Mercifully, though, self-conscious freakery is kept to a minimum, but one occasionally wishes that Cabic might challenge his reverent delicacies by tackling some edgier freaky-deak material, as his reb’ belle peers Shelby Lynne and Cat Power (her fetishization of Carolinian goddess Nina Simone requires another forum) have done. As a descendant of the Naturals and proto-Southerners whose folkways and ecology were destroyed by the Brits, I feel qualified to prod Cabic to draw on his down-home roots and be the change that steers his subculture away from insularity and toward much-needed community. As an Afro-Keltic redbone boho, I want to love naturalismo, yet I’ve been hindered by the genre’s seemingly ruthless apathy and tainted Luddite mystique amid the 21st century’s incessant turbulence. As we hurtle toward 2012, I expect to see more plain folks get reconnected with their inner savage, and see artists like Vetiver take on a shamanic role in restoring their audience to the best aspects of their past tribal selves.