Listening to the first few tracks of Vast Low Cities, the debut release from San Francisco quartet Vervein, it might be easy to characterize the record as a collection of dainty down-tempo pop songs, enhanced by layers of ethereal female vocals that lull a listener into a pleasant, meditative state. But to focus on nothing more than this halcyon element would be a mistake. While Vervein's music -- driven by the interplay between the guitars of Jessica Congdon and Esther Reyes and backed by Rachel Fuller's melodic bass lines and Allison Duke's solid drumming -- is lush and wistful, recalling slow-core bands like Rex and Red House Painters, the band adds complex, emotional lyrics to its dreamy landscapes of sound, making for an intelligent record that dives deep below its deceptively serene surface.
The existential dilemma of time and its role in our inevitable passage into death seems an obsession of Vervein's principal songwriter, Congdon, who also doubles as lead vocalist. "Dying on the vine, die all the time," she sings on "Mush," one of the record's most compelling tracks, which finds her futilely longing to re-create a moment with a lover. A similar sentiment is represented in "Three," a haunting dirge of a song accented by a warbling organ over which Congdon sings, "Patience is the only thing that comes to those who wait," making it clear that she's a gal who would much rather make things happen than let time make her decisions for her.
Congdon's lyrics are supported by music that makes ample use of the crescendo, as many of the songs build from a sparse beginning to an electrically charged finale. The occasional infusion of Reyes' haunting cello adds an elegant drama to the mix. And just when it seems Vervein overuses minor keys, a bright song like "Disposition" or the infectiously hooky "Stray Dogs" interrupts the moody reverie. Overall, the material on Vast Low Cities inspires a response similar to what its lyrics evoke: It's easy to dream of beautiful things while we listen, but those hopes are dashed when the record, like all things, comes to an end.