The second thing you notice about Death Vessel is the songwriting. It's both transportive and entirely naturalistic. The new album, Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, opens with gentle acoustic guitar figures draped in what sounds like a new morning; dew-wet synths glisten and rusty electric guitars drone like bees. "My throat hurts not from yelling but from holding back," sings a startlingly high countertenor.
Which is the first thing you notice about Death Vessel. It's the striking voice of Joel Thibodeau, who writes and sings all the material and accompanies himself with a rotating cast of musicians. While it elicits a sense of amazement upon the first couple listens, the novelty quickly wears off once the listener realizes Thibodeau's not hitting notes any higher than Ronnie James Dio or Robert Plant did. What is unusual is to hear a high male voice in this context; the name of the band notwithstanding, Death Vessel's bluegrass- and Americana-influenced music has little in common with the histrionics of heavy metal.
Thibodeau started Death Vessel after the dissolution of String Builder, a band he formed with his brother Alec in Providence, Rhode Island. "As a teenager, my voice was horrible and very in-between sounding," Joel explains. "As I began writing my own music it became obvious to me that I should try to sing in a way that sounded better. Alec only encouraged me to write and sing more. Citing Vincent van Gogh, he said, 'Ignore the obvious and exaggerate the essential.' Never have I had another doubt about my singing voice."
Death Vessel's 2005 debut, Stay Close, was steeped in mandolins and fiddles, but the music on Nothing is Precious Enough for Us allows room for a wider swath of American influences: The ragtime of "The Widening" sounds like a Dixieland stroll, while the slow torch-swing of "Peninsula" slowly mutates into a Crazy Horse electric stomp. Death Vessel live shows in the past have generally been solo acoustic affairs, but this time, the show will reflect the new record's diversity. "This will be the first tour with a band lineup," says Thibodeau. "Early on, when I first started writing the new songs," he continues, "I realized things were going in a different direction than Stay Close. It was a great relief to have found inspiration that would allow me to go somewhere new."
In fact, the new album is so diverse that it's a little difficult to describe, evoking both a woozy American Gothic spookiness and a steady-handed New England Yankee sobriety. "Bruno's Torso" starts intimately, but as organs swell and martial drums buzz, it becomes symphonically melodramatic, and gorgeously so; "Exploded View" at times sounds like an old folk song, with mandolin and chuffing harmonica, but then it's kickstarted by an electric guitar solo; "Circa" features drawn-out church hymn melisma over a shifting progressive-rock time signature.
One thing is for certain: With Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, Death Vessel has outgrown what Pitchfork called "an inescapable sideshow quality" in its review of Stay Close. The album shows Thibodeau is capable of cross-breeding genres to make a brand new, fully modern style of music. As he says, "The music of past doesn't need me to keep it alive. It's there for the taking."