This, their crucial second album, apparently came about more by accident (followed by stealth) than anything pre-planned. After touring with Bon Iver a couple of times, they bonded to such an extent that Justin Vernon (main man of the American cult-indie heroes) invited them to his studio, in the wilds of Wisconsin, sensing that they needed some time out and to hang free and play some music. Whether or not this was a long game plan, we might never know, but sure enough after a few visits back and forth, and with The Staves record label also apparently having no knowledge of their initial secret dalliance, Vernon (apparently, again…) popped the question, something along the lines of: 'looks like we're making a record?'
There is something romantic about this notion; two sets of artists getting it together, without a plan or strategic vision. The girls were ready to get away from it all, just chill out, drink some booze and play some music, something that they hadn't been able to do much at all in the intervening three years after the release of their debut album 'Dead & Born & Grown'. And they hadn't written much either, so these visits turned into full blown writing sessions, the sisters sometimes writing alone, or in collaboration with each other. But while the 'Mexico and Motherlode' EPs, along with the debut album, were basically just them and a guitar or ukulele, 'If I Was' is, in effect, The Staves with backing band, albeit a backing band that includes Justin Vernon, who produced the album, and various Bon Iver members who more than make their mark, musically, and personality-wise. More than meets the eye, this is a collaborative album that has helped The Staves to explore new dimensions and new sounds.
The key though, to any musical success, are the songs and this is ultimately the reason why we should celebrate The Staves. Voices don't mean very much without good songs to sing, and all three have an intuitive ear for melody, and a mature grasp of the craft of songwriting. Much of the inspiration for these songs comes from their recent experiences of changing relationships, not only between themselves, but also with their respective boyfriends, friends and family. "What does a relationship mean if you're not ever there, not together? How can you be friends with someone when you are missing every landmark occasion in their life and they have no idea about your day-to-day life? How can you stay close and honest with these people when you are so tired? I don't know. So many detours…" Emily has said of the overriding theme of the album. 'If I Was' has allowed them let some of that pent up emotion out, Vernon's studio and it's relatively isolated environs inviting them to digest and comprehend their actions, and their new found place in the world, essentially as on-the-road full-time musicians. As almost every rock documentary of life on the road will tell you, this can potentially be a recipe for madness. The Staves, to use a truly horrible pun, are seeking to stave that potential off..
Recorded over five trips across the Atlantic, at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and produced by Justin Vernon, If I Was takes The Staves’ original blueprint of sublimely harmonised British indie-folk and gives it an injection of muscle and a much-heightened ambition. This new direction, and their new sonic template is borne out by opening track, the epic Born I Bled, not only do you hear the different voices at different times, as you usually do, you hear them utterly soar together, the end result being many shades of light and dark, something they can seemingly do at will. And the music is a huge upgrade from their previous works; after the initial folksy ukulele and voice beginning, Vernon and band come out of the traps, a glorious romp through the English countryside (for this is the vision presented in front of me!), horns, strings'n'all. 'Come the quickening feet that fall, come the gathering rain, suffering as I suffer you, hearing you speak of pain,' they sing. The following track Steady, is also a relatively complex and composite piece, the joining together of two songs written by Jessica and Camilla. There's a Fleetwood Mac fluidity to it, with similar vocal dynamics, and again Vernon and pals embellishing with decisive muscularity, but tastefully done, never overwhelming. The band also particularly make their mark on the the somewhat atypical Black & White, a mildly bruising, bluesy west coast rocker a la Crosby, Still, Nash & Young circa 'Deja Vu'.
The new eclecticism of The Staves comes through further on the dreamily electro-hymnal Damn It All, led by the fragile voice of Jessica, before the song segues into what is in effect an entirely new song, simply strummed, but rawly acoustic, building and building, the voices big and strong, inducing that all-too-rare spine-tingling sensation in me. The sentiments of 'Even though I love you I want you go to' suddenly morphs into 'Throw it all into the wind, well damn it all/ I don't want it all, think I need a drink', suggestive of the battling forces perseverance over resignation. And with The Shining (a somewhat throwaway reference to the fact this Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick horror classic was being watched in the studio's control room during one of their visits – spooky, when you remember that that film was largely set in an isolated and snow bound hotel in Colorado, a bit like at times, snow bound studio in Wisconsin), you get a faintly Stereolabesque 60s/lounge groove, and a wonderfully buzzing guitar solo.
They haven't entirely forsaken their stripped back acoustic roots though. On No Me, No You, No More, The Staves are largely unadorned, save for some gentle droning and sparse keys, on this heartbreakingly honest song about relationships. Segueing into the equally emotive and stripped back Let Me Down, the girls are, by the end, singing their big hearts out. It's explosive and glorious. Furthermore, the downbeat You Don't Call Me Anymore is filled with both regret and longing: 'I may have made a few mistakes, I wish could make them again/ I wish we were friends.'
Amidst all this relative gloom and inner-questioning, the girls can also be playful, such as on White Teeth, based on a fine melody, with country-rock overtones, and Let It Be period Beatles guitar. And, the final two tracks, Make It Holy and Sadness Don't Own Me, are defiant in the face of their essentially melancholic bearing, providing some hope, made the more emotive with the inclusion of the only male backing vocals on the whole album, as if all present at Eau Claire felt just the same as each other. 'I could make you want me, make you need me, make you mine/I could make you holy, make it special, make it right' Gently yearning yet resigned, sad and yet hopeful… the military style parade drums pointing to the onward march of life and it's ongoing trills and tribulations.
They had set the standard with their debut album. Now the bar has been raised even higher.