I believe you can, for the most part, divide the dozen songs on Ezra Vancil’s album The Family Songbook into two types – there are an assortment of electric folk tracks with an orchestral feel and much more outright pop oriented material that, nevertheless, never abandons the singer/songwriter aesthetic. Melodic strengths dominate the songwriting no matter what style Vancil is taking on and he gushes with confident musicality; you never get the feeling he is repeating himself. I can listen to vocals like those we hear on this release all day. Some might claim they are a little too pretty and precious, too precise, but the level of craftsmanship necessary for achieving or envisioning such a sound isn’t something to underestimate.
That craftsmanship is apparent in the opening track. “Big Old House” brings his pre-teen daughter’s skills to the fore during the vocal harmonies. The acoustic guitar playing is near immaculate and the overall architecture of sound Vancil erects for this track is a harbinger of even higher peaks to come. His lyrical powers, both musically and in terms of language, are near their height with the cut “Glow”. The tasteful addition of brass sounds to the track further distinguishes this track from many of the album’s surrounding numbers. It has a near mid-tempo tilt and Vancil records the acoustic guitar with startling clarity.
“Parables” features satisfying acoustic guitar work, some of the album’s best, and the words measure up to his finest offerings on the release. Vancil has a novelist’s control of theme – The Family Songbook, as its title implies, aims to provide listeners with a thorough thematic study of family and how our connections with such loved ones influence and shape our lives. His voice pairs neatly with the contributions of guest vocalist Moonsister. “Goodbye Grandpas” is a near ideal expression of that aforementioned theme. Vancil, in particular on this track, takes a thoughtful look at generational influence and the vocals provide us with another show-stealing moment on this release.
“Beat of My Heart” falls into the second type of songs mentioned in the review’s first paragraph. These songs are more in evidence during the album’s second half than its first and the rhythm section playing for this cut is muscular and memorable. It’s a track with enormous commercial potential, but I never get the sense hearing this album that Vancil is concerned with receiving commercial exposure. The piano and strings present during the album’s title song are musical elements lingering in the memory long after the track concludes, but the way Vancil invests the everyday with true poetry sets him apart much more.
I confess being unfamiliar with Ezra Vancil’s work before encountering this album. I have corrected that oversight and expect I’ll be following his career with great interest from this point forward. Ezra Vancil’s The Family Songbook is a work without peer and, even if it isn’t a perfect artistic endeavor, it deserves plaudits for delving deep into a subject few songwriters can even begin to address.
Photo credit: Siouxsie McCoy
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