Benjamin Doerr is the mastermind and organizer for Seattle band St. Paul de Vence. Their debut self-titled album was a series of songs about Doerr’s grandfather’s experience in World War II. He picks up that songwriting adventure with several related stories in the new Farther Than Light. In addition to new stories, the band has taken on a slightly new shape, including the addition of Lydia Ramsey, an exquisite female vocal and instrumentalist that helps to finish the sound of St. Paul de Vence. Okay, enough of the formal stuff – honestly, the album is shortlisted for album of the year and the title track is on a very, very short list for song of the year. This is a must have album. So good.
Maybe the most important defining factor of St. Paul de Vence is Doerr’s unique tenor voice. From the opening of “Telling Me So” it’s evident that the band has a slightly new sound from the self titled album. Lydia Ramsey’s soft, sweet female vocals offer a perfect compliment to Doerr’s sound. The opener sounds and feels like a lullaby. It sends chills up your spine with a subtle, easily-picked electric guitar. The feel of the song allows listeners to curl up into its intimacy, feeling strangely comfortable in the midst of a “moment” between the two presenting the duo. It’s awesome.
The second track “Mama” is all St Paul de Vence – from Doerr’s high vocal to the folksy vocal blending from the rest of the band. The key lyric “Mama I’m okay…” provides the ballad with a strong sing-a-long component while also inspiring a familial connection. Oh and there’s a banjo. It’s got this feeling to it – singing and dancing with the piano – that you didn’t necessarily feel like you needed a banjo but then you hear this one and think YES! I totally needed that banjo. People don’t really think of folk music as being “dance” music, but I dare you to sit still through this whole song. Not possible.
So there are two versions of the title track on the album. The first one is at the third track and has the full band approach. It’s really good and would have stood alone as one of the best tracks on the album. It really highlights the duet between Doerr and Ramsey. But… just… wait until the last track acoustic version…
“On This Road” sounds like an “on the road” song. Seriously the vocals and guitars feel like you’ve heard it a million times. It sounds like the early 70s. In fact, the combination of the backing organ and the chord structure really feels like it might have fallen right off of that AM Gold record you forgot you had. But that makes it sound like I don’t like it – and honestly I could listen to a whole album of this sound. It’s inspiring. It’s a story of adventure and pondering whether the person (presumably a love interest) will go with him.
“Spring” is one of the tracks that makes me view the new St Paul de Vence sound as “Americana.” There’s not an easy genre for it. “Honey love me til the spring…” is a lover’s sentiment and the instrumentation is classic. There are guitars, vocal harmonies, and some absolutely glorious horns. There’s a really grandiose element to the song, especially when the organ, full band, and horns all blend together. I know this doesn’t help you all much, but it’s kind of an indescribable sound – but in the best way possible. You really need to check it out.
“Annecy is on fire” is a rhythmic and repetitive jam. It has an exotic, esoteric feel to it. It highlights the versatility of Doerr’s songwriting and conjures completely different emotions than the other tracks with more vivid specific imagery. The following “Nobody Else” is more of a traditional folk song with Doerr on lead with an acoustic guitar. The banjo crawls alongside the lead until a powerful full band vocal comes in to steal the show. Again with the AM Gold style vocal blending, it’s some of the best vocals on the entire album. It’s ultimately a ballad of independence. Rather than narcissism, it sounds like a friend encouraging another friend to move on from a failed relationship. “Love – forget her name… yeah, I lost myself with nobody else.” It’s good.
“Leave Them” is about letting children play. It’s quaint and romantic in one sense, but also extremely dark in other ways. I think it’s about letting people live their own lives, but not in a freeing and hopeful way. It’s about witnessing pain and suffering, only suppress it. The eeriely repetitive “leave them alone” at the track punctuates the tragedy of the song.
But then the last track is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in years. “Farther Than Light” as an acoustic duo with Doerr and Ramsey is intimate, sweet, and just delightful. Ramsey’s vocal quality is the perfect fit for this song. She sounds familiar and wonderful, like you feel like you know her. It’s the perfect sentiment for the distance described in the song. Clearly the characters in the song are close and share a deep love for each other. The battlefield imagery (ragged pile of bones, etc.) shows the desperation of the song, despite it capturing such a deep and beautiful love.
Let me put it simply – I love this album. I don’t skip any of the tracks. I love the variety of styles here. There’s some country, lots of folk, and even a slight soft rock influence. Sometimes when I hear albums I can pinpoint the actual influences that the artist listened to. What strikes me about this album is that it doesn’t sound like anyone else. This is Benjamin Doerr’s heart – right now, right where he is, telling the stories that creep up from within him. That’s what makes me so glad to hear even the romantic songs have a little bit of tragedy in them. That’s life. It’s not quaint and perfect and flawless. Life is a mix of romance and tragedy. Life is hard and raw and beautiful all at once. This album joyfully, mournfully, and eloquently delivers human emotion for us to hear. Dear friends, do support this art.