CD, Plastic Sound Supply, 2008
Judging by the name, Wentworth Kersey might be written off as another singer-songwriter, but that’s just what collaborators Joe Sampson and Jeffrey Stevens would like people to think. The Denver, Colorado, project’s name derives from the artists’ middle names, and each approaches the other from opposing ends of the musical spectrum. Sampson, already an acclaimed songwriter and vocalist, provides his particular brand of country/folk lyricism, in turn treated and expanded upon by Stevens, whose soft electronic touches, loops and manipulations wash through the tracks like gradations of watery ink. The first in a planned trilogy of EPs, “O” and its successor, “(O)” (2009), are replete with much of the same: mournful, shimmering modulations, acoustic guitar and plaintive voice, all bundled together with lo-fi simplicity and a healthy measure of the open range to boot.
On the surface, “O” is unpretentious acoustic guitar and voice, songwriting that brims with a sense of nostalgia and cautious hope, evoking campfires and airy canyons. Dig deeper, however, and the illusion is ruptured by the presence of electronic pitches and ambient modulations that carry the background, filling up the space like wind over the plains. Sampson recorded his guitar and singing with a single microphone in one take on his home eight-track. Stevens, for his part, took these raw recordings and blended them with synthesized atmospheres and resonances, in fact adding little in the way of enhancements or reworking. Only one track on “O” is entirely instrumental (“Pablo & Julia Dream Of Hwy 104”); instead of Sampson’s vocals there is a gradual humming that develops into a rhythmic pulse, eventually with calm, melodic strings and drums, no doubt the work of Stevens alone.
For the rest, “O” is a meditative, shoegazing interpretation of organic musical forms saturated with the casual, melancholy spirit of the American West (“It’s about all I can take today,” from “The Death Of Anthony Gonsalves”), a simple record of surprising dimensions that pays little care to the tensions often apparent in acoustic/electronic collaborations. Wentworth Kersey creates music either too simple and unpretentious to bring such enmity to a head, or so subtle and clever – fundamentally flawed in ways too palpable to be noticed – as to mask it completely. It’s difficult to tell which, as each man brings a different measure of perfection to the table. “They Say Goodbye” favors sometimes barely there sweeps of color oscillating in the background, while “Ears Burn” glistens with an ephemeral, limitless aura. Lyrics are often candid, even confidential musings (on “Impressed” Sampson intones, “Did you pretend that you were only a friend? I wish I had…”), expressive of the project’s singer-songwriter roots. With its trilogy of wistful EPs, Wentworth Kersey stands to be recognized not only for its vaquero aesthetic, but also its unhurried, heartfelt music.
— Dutton Hauhart