Storytelling is a powerful art. It is also an undervalued one, as our attention spans are increasingly trained to max out at 140 characters. Storytelling is one reason I’m drawn to folk music: the murder ballads, the tales from the road (literal and metaphorical), the parables of losing your way on dusty old streets¹ and finding your way when the light cuts through the great storm in the sky.² But to craft songs about love, self-ruin, and betrayal without sounding hackneyed — that takes true talent. And Vandaveer is truly talented.
Vandaveer is the D.C.-by-way-of-Kentucky alt-folk project of Mark Charles Heidinger. Mark plays with a host of other musicians including, most prominently, Rose Guerin. In the band’s stripped-down incarnation, Mark sings and plays guitar while Rose offers up crystalline harmonies that infuse haunting melodies with an angelic purity. In studio and on some tour stops, Vandaveer’s sound is fleshed out with a rotating cast that includes J. Tom Hnatow on pedal steel and banjo and Ben Sollee on cello.
In trying to describe Vandaveer’s style through folk duo comparisons, I find myself thinking of Johnny Cash & June Carter but with less country and more folk, Shovels & Rope with less twang and more darkness, or maybe the Avett Brothers meets the Indigo Girls.
But these rough comparisons do not capture the way Vandaveer’s music ensnares your senses with delicately intertwined harmonies that are sometimes comforting and other times aching with loneliness. Mark delivers literate rhymes with an ease that belies the angst of the narrator. Even on first listen, the melodies tug on the edges of your memory, as if you’ve heard the song before but can’t quite place it. Vandaveer’s magic is in giving musical form to the shadows of thoughts that lurk in the back alleys of our collective unconscious.
Day four of the shutdown. As a reminder that not everything in Washington is dysfunctional, I’m placing this amazing song from D.C.-based Vandaveer on my current playlist. If you like folk/Americana, you need to give them a listen.
Lately, music reviewers have been criticizing bands for unimaginatively riding the Mumford & Sons wave, but that is certainly not the case with this alt-folk duo. There’s an honest rawness in Vandaveer’s sound and storytelling that sets them apart. Take “Spite,” for instance. The song features a primal dance between percussion and guitar, punctuated by strings. I love how the straining, tormented undercurrent in Mark Charles Heidinger’s deep vocals is complemented by the sweet, delicate voice of bandmate Rose Guerin.
In addition to constructing hauntingly beautiful harmonies, Vandaveer pays attention to words and knows the power of allegory. “Spite” is poetry — an unvarnished representation of the (il)logic of a man who “cut out his sleep to spite his dreams, picked all the flowers to spite the bees.”
Hm, does this description fit certain ideologues who closed national parks and Head Start education programs for low-income children (the list of impacts is a long one), all because they couldn’t get their way on a piece of legislation that, as imperfect as it is, makes health care more affordable for more people — a law that was championed by a President this country later reelected, and which was upheld by the Supreme Court? Please, someone send a copy of Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes Law” to these legislators.
But, I digress. To return to the music — “Spite” is a smart, well-crafted song, and a reminder of what happens when we cede our better selves to the base instincts of vengefulness and vindictiveness: Life becomes a “wretched affair,” in which we “hold our breath to spite the air.” Check out the cool video. As the band says, they “went a little Kafka on this one.”