REVIEW: Ezra Vancil — The Family Songbook (LP)
Ezra Vancil’s songwriting has elicited fulsome praise from an assortment of outlets and he is long past an apprenticeship spent playing and singing with a variety of indie rock bands. His writing speaks to listeners from an intensely personal space within and often covers topics some may struggle with, but it nevertheless remains accessible despite its apparent autobiographical nature. He continues pursuing that songwriting slant with his latest album The Family Songbook but restrictions about social interaction because of this COVID-19 pandemic fractured Vancil’s recording plans. He put the considerable talents of his young daughter Cozi to use finishing the release in his home studio and, despite the essentially DIY nature of the recording and its fragmented process, it has an impressive sonic scope and has consistent vision.
You may think that being forced to retreat to working out of his home studio might mar the overall sound of the release, but that isn’t the case with this album. Vancil has an enormous musical imagination that he gives full vent to on The Family Songbook; many of the selections have an almost cinematic verve in the way they rise from low-key beginnings into intensely colorful and visual sonic landscapes. “Big Old House” is the album’s first track and an excellent example of the rising and falling narrative nature of Vancil’s songwriting. His vocal melodies are a staple strength of his work and that holds true for this track as well.
Piano provides ample melodic underpinning for many of the tracks, often duetting in a way with the guitar playing, and shines bright during the track “Glow”. Vancil is an obviously experienced guitarist and plays with a melody-focused economy that’s disciplined and wonderfully individualistic despite working within a tradition. The folk influences prevalent in tracks such as these are impossible to ignore. “Parables” is another first class lyric with accompanying elegant acoustic guitar. Vancil’s mix of the general and specific, the concrete and abstract, is a hallmark of his lyrics and one of their chief assets, but his eye for significant detail is even more important to making these tracks work.
“Beat of My Heart” has great melodic attributes, but its pop inclinations are apparent from nearly the first note. The bass line is memorable and establishes a deep groove the music follows and it’s impressive how this stylistic shift nevertheless falls right into place with the other performances included on this release. “The Family Songbook” and “Our Town” are two of the best recordings on the album. They are both cut from the folk-influenced cloth, but the former has a much lighter musical demeanor than the latter. “The Family Songbook” features some of the sharpest lyrics on this release, it isn’t easy to make domesticity compelling, and the latter generates a lot of heat despite its instrumentation. Ezra Vancil’s The Family Songbook is one of the most fully realized albums in the singer/songwriter mold that I’ve heard in recent years. It’s clear he took a great deal of care with each aspect of the recording and it pays off with deeply satisfying results.