The Vatican Cellars present a most misleading façade. Take their name for a start. It brings to my mind images of a dimly labyrinth harbouring dark secrets of religiously intriguing nature (perhaps unfairly, I mean they could just store communion wine down there, but art/culture generally paints the Catholic church in a sinister light). With the knowledge that the name is shared (well, presumably taken from) an Andre Gide novel about the plot to overthrow a supposedly false Pope who the Freemasons has placed on the papal throne in place of the real Pope, you feel that The Vatican Cellars are bound to be an intriguingly shadowy prospect themselves. Then there’s the real life back story to the group’s formation; having met in Paris the duo of Piney Gir guitarist Simon Hughes and The Birthday Girl found they had some recent personal loss in common and The Vatican Cellars was born out of songs Hughes had written to deal with his grief. As it states quite clearly on their MySpace page 'They write songs about death, loss and guilt'.
The Same Crooked Worm is surely a litany of cathartic gothic-folk then? Well, not exactly. Sure, there’s a shade of melancholy over much of the record and the spectre of death appears in lines like "What have I found out? Nothing I didn’t know, everything dies and it’s nothing special" (‘Nothing Special’), but its presence never looms too large. Generally speaking we consider it to be a merit of music dealing with mortality that it doesn’t linger on the topic with too gloomy an outlook. The obvious example is The Arcade Fire’s Funeral where the grief was tangible, but where catharsis was found in rallying against the loss. What lets The Same Crooked Worm down is that even where lyrics convey the emotion felt by the principal songwriters, for the most the music fails to engage with their trauma in any meaningful way. Instead it just sort of plods along with the same pedestrian folk-pop temperament.
Of course there are moments where this genteel autumnal strum feels every bit appropriate. See the title track (and album opener); sure some might find lines like "Love is the highest human grace" a bit sappy, but it’s hard to begrudge their optimistic outlook, particularly when the duo harmonize beautifully on the conclusion "But I’m alive" with the chirpy guitar chime that follows each line a musical concurrence. It’s not unusual for sombre lyrics to be matched with an upbeat melody, but little on The Same Crooked Worm has the pacing or melodic urgency to strike this sort of contrast. That said, there are few moments where the melodies are engaging enough or the dynamics forceful enough to convey the supposed emotional gravitas in direct terms. ‘The Wreck of the Alba’ is one of these fleeting moments, the vibrato shudder of the string section blowing in upon the guitar and brushed drums in an ominous gale that recalls the crepuscular pastoralism of The Clientele. Unfortunately this is a precursor to a cloyingly upbeat chorus. In the context of the record ‘Bitter Plans’ is positively thorny, with busy brushed snares and brusquely truncated lines on the rush of the chorus, yet even it settles into a mid-paced plod on the verses.
The odd lyrical clunker aside there is nothing downright terrible about The Same Crooked Worm; the arrangements are at least never less than pretty and knowing the inspiration behind the record it feels a little harsh to pour scorn on its execution. Yet ultimately it’s rendered a disappointment by the failure to express, in an engaging manner, the circumstances and feelings which were the record’s raison d'être.
5Neil Ashman's Score