Not yer typical harmony singing group, the Stavely-Taylor sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily have made a deep impression with their combination of beautiful singing, melodically engaging songs and, it cannot be denied, great looks. Though it’s their thirst and love for music making that marks them out as bona fide artists. Artists who have acquainted themselves with good music across the board, forging fruitful friendships with many other good musicians, and soaking up experiences along the way.
Meeting Justin Vernon of Bon Iver proved to be pivotal. Not only did they tour with Bon Iver, Vernon ended up producing their If I Was album of 2015. Vernon’s band at the time included Rob Moose and C.J. Camerieri of yMusic, both of whom ended up playing on the record too. Then, at Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival in his Wisconsin home town, The Staves performed a couple of songs as part of yMusic’s set.
The stage was set for a further collaboration, this time a full-length album. An attempted marrying of the often avant-garde neo-classical six-piece instrumental ensemble with a more traditionally pop-orientated three-piece harmony singing group, recorded over just one day, the day after their fully fledged second Eaux Claires festival collaborative set of 2016. Whilst new territory for The Staves, yMusic have a lot of form in this partnering department and can count the likes of Paul Simon, The National and Sufjan Stevens among those they have worked with. Here, they’ve also decided to take a slight back seat insofar as they have not produced anything new for this, but have allowed The Staves to explore their back catalogue, and to find suitable material that could be fused or transformed into new Staves songs. Both Moose and Jessica Stavely-Taylor oversaw the project.
In fact, some of The Way is Read comes across as primarily a Staves album. On the short if complex vocal-only opener ‘Hopeless’ for instance, or the longer ‘All the Times You Prayed’, a rare acoustic guitar moment, with yMusic only sparingly providing instrumentation.
At other times, The Way is Read is primarily the work of yMusic. Such as on the wild, weird and energetic ‘Take Me Home’, where manic staccato strings, flute, cello and trumpet coalesce before collapsing into their disparate individual parts, the girls eventually make their mark, but only using their voices very fleetingly, as instruments in this case. Then there’s the very short instrumental ‘Bladed Stance’, a transformed snippet of a composition yMusic released back in 2014.
yMusic and The Staves operate as more equal partners on songs such as ‘Trouble on My Mind’, at heart a typically lovelorn Staves song, with yMusic’s largely string-based work acting as a suitably lush pastoral backdrop. ‘All My Life’ begins as a continuation of the repetitive staccato nature of much of yMusic’s sound, before it settles down on gentle wafts of woodwind, flute and strings. ‘Silent Side’ is one of the more gentler pieces, the lyrics invoking a theme that exists throughout The Way is Read, which is based on Philip Pullman’s idea that every human being has a ‘dæmon’, which is an animal – the physical embodiment of your soul or spirit – and which is almost always the opposite sex. Much of The Way is Read has a purposeful double meaning as the songs often revolving around the personal but also in the realm of your ‘other’ etc. ‘Year of the Dog’, which immediately follows ‘Silent Side’, is gentle, but deceptively so, with a protruding dark and disturbing yMusic undercurrent that pops here and there, while The Staves only sparingly sing the words “You are” throughout.
The Staves also get their folk out for both ‘Courting Is A Pleasure’ and ‘Sprig of Thyme’, both traditional songs and both re-arranged lyrically, to enable the folk-style singing to sit on top of the semi-abstract music of yMusic, making for interesting, if not wholly convincing versions.
Partly successful, The Way is Read sees The Staves and yMusic complimenting each other despite the wide chasm in styles and substance, largely as a result of yMusic’s work being significantly re-arranged and transformed to fit in. Perhaps more work along the lines of ‘Take Me Home’ and the title track itself (although in this case it’s a largely reworked four bar segment of a yMusic song that is used as the basis) would have resulted in an even more adventurous album, with less of The Staves’ trademark melancholia, and more of yMusic’s muscular, out-there musicality.