On Ben and Vesper Stamper’s debut full-length, the husband-and-wife duo recruits an extended family of collaborators to fill out these pleasingly melodic if skewed pop songs. Danielson ringleader Dan Smith twiddles the knobs; his siblings David and Elin Smith handle drums and backing vocals, respectively; Sufjan Stevens juggles piano, banjo and woodwind duties; and Ben Stamper’s brother Joshua sits in on guitar. That All This Could Kill You is such a family affair is telling. Throughout these songs, Ben fixates on the kind of domestic minutiae that seldom surfaces in pop music.
In a croon as serious as Scott Walker’s, he sings lines like, “Take a look at my slacker kid’s report cards/ You think I’m about to frame them?” or “Why talk on your phone’s walkie-talkie when it’s a phone?” It’s not that his lyrics are lightweight; instead, everything’s fair game. In fact, when “I’m here to buy some snacks for my kids” bubbles up amid more self-important, Romantic musings in “The Stomach,” it grounds the song in an honesty seldom found in all of indie rock’s hipster posturing.
But none of that would matter much if his words weren’t wrapped in such lovely music. Ben and Vesper sing together with an entwined familiarity, conjuring other perfect vocal matches like Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan or Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Most notable, though, is how these song bend melodically, taking darker, more dissonant turns when a listener least expects them. On opener “Door to Door,” the chorus builds tension as it progresses into intentionally discordant territory over jangling electric-guitar chords. On standout “Live Free or Try,” a sludgy organ drapes over a sweet and delicate melody like a pall. Departing from the album’s self-possessed restraint, it climaxes with a ragged and searching guitar solo.
Much of All This Could Kill You borders on Sufjan-style easy listening, and especially near the end there is too little diversity to prevent it from seeming overlong. But it’s still full of the kind of sophisticated melody and lush production that repays repeated spins. From the angelic chorus on “Vow Takers” to the twinkling piano pop of “Rockaway TWP,” Ben + Vesper make good on a threat embedded in “Force Field”: “We are a force you’ll want to reckon with.”
“An Honest Bluff” MP3: