The full-length debut from New Jersey’s The Feverfew begins, appropriately enough, with a rumination on the process of nurturing new beginnings, the bittersweet acoustic ballad “Goodbye, Blue Monday.”
While the five-minute introduction sets the stage for much of what materializes later on Apparitions —tender and sometimes sparse acoustic guitars, breathy vocals, careful arrangements — what really stands out and tugs at the heartstrings is the way nearly solo performer/songwriter Bethany Spiers uses her image-stories to place listeners in the center of tangible moments of developing sentiment.
“Goodbye, Blue Monday” has its share of familiar literary motifs but Spiers knows how to frame things, leading the listener from distance and loss (“It’s snowing on a Monday as I am driving home/ And the guilt begins to creep up from the ones I’ve left alone/And on this road their bodies still hang up in the air/ Between the birch’s branches where I last left them there”) to the hunger for a kind of rebirth (“The spray paint spelled ‘Salvation’ but I knew you wanted more/ So I paint myself in blue light and I unlock all the doors/ Because the city’s getting smaller and I don’t know where to go/ And I spent my only dollar hoping maybe you would know.”).
During her finest moments on Apparitions, Spiers embraces some of the finer lynchpins while avoiding the trappings of the singer-songwriter “genre,” crafting songs that are trembling but direct and emotive but alarmingly accessible to passing ears. There’s a surprising sense of urgency and even empathy that she lends to passing moments of human interaction, whether it’s a couple meeting after one of them misses a bus (“Selby”) or a bunch of angry men throwing caution to the wind at an off-track betting club (“Last Call”).
Spiers’ voice is what seals the deal.
While there’s nothing particularly unusual or spectacular about her voice — it’s soft, tender, well-recorded and hits the right notes but rarely strays from the expected — it also is deceptively engaging, a tool employed to make moments that pass for conversational seem to resonate more clearly.
There are some great tracks here (the aforementioned “Last Call” and “Goodbye, Blue Monday,” the wispy, casual shuffle and somber solos of “By Now,” the sometimes-ethereal “A Song, A Story”) but not every song on the nine-track CD is transcendent. Songs late on the 39-minute disc occasionally trade in Spiers’ straight-ahead, largely solo performance for slightly amped-up studio-processed vocals or interesting but sometimes muddy accompaniment from melodica.
Sometimes, the results work (“A Song, A Story”) and sometimes they feel forced (the closing “The Gift”). And there are songs that fall somewhere between those two poles. Like the better moments of “A Song, A Story,” the spare but oddly inviting “The Night The Whole World Caught Fire” nearly makes up for what it lacks in scope with a kind of aural nakedness. But while the song has its inviting — if slightly bizarre — turns of phrases (“It’s six on a Sunday and babies are crying/ Their mothers caught lying awake in their beds saying/ ‘Not yet, not yet/ We could paint it white/ Under the disguise of infinite light’”), it also has moments that border on feeling flat, moments that stand still, their toes clinging to soil rather than letting loose and taking flight.
Then there are other tracks that are heartbeats away from being brilliant — take the atmospheric and textured two-guitar interplay of “Descending,” a song writ in sections whose parts may or may not reference a descent into an emotionless hell (“I’ve got plenty of time to numb the pain with chemicals/ Ignore the reason for the rhyme”) or a hesitant journey through Alice’s looking-glass (“And now, in the mirror I see the look on my face/ It’s half disappointment and half disgrace”).
Musically, the track starts off sounding like the strange and inviting harmonies served up by Tara Jane O’Neill or Sonora Pine and peaks in a more theatrical vein, soon thereafter, during a duet with Jonathon Linaberry. There doesn’t seem to be a thread that holds together the separate refrains but Spiers makes the whole song work.
There are those who may write off Apparitions as predictable, a collection you’d be likely to hear in any coffeehouse from any aspiring young singer-songwriter with a six-string Martin, a half-whisper of a voice and a generous helping of sadness or longing or both. Maybe. But Spiers seems to have an awareness of what she’s doing that raises her work with The Feverfew — almost entirely a mask for her solo outing — above Grade B troubadour-isms.
For evidence, you don’t have to look beyond “A Song, A Story,” where Spiers echoes the Cynthia Dall of Untitled as she sings, “My words are not urgent, my melody plain/ And all my epiphanies still sound the same/ It’s a song, it’s a story of your life and mine/ And, hard as we try, the words are still intertwined.”
It’s not a revelation, sure, but Spiers’ voice makes it heart-aching and vital.
And, maybe most importantly, it’s a beginning. – Delusions of Adequacy, Jan. 17, 2005