Ben and Vesper Stamper are the ideal couple, really. Their voices are the perfect match for each other, they've created a career together playing music, and on Honors, their second full-length album, they've surrounded themselves with a lovable gang of friends, including old pal Sufjan Stevens. The effect is that this whole record seems fuller and, while still domestic, it feels like Ben + Vesper have moved out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. At their best, these two display a loving relationship full of quiet charm befitting a romantic comedy. At its worst, though, Honors has all the drama of an ABC Family channel sitcom, as Ben + Vesper come off as a little too perfect. A marriage without a fight, like a college football game without a rivalry, can sometimes be a little mundane.
Every Ben + Vesper release always comes down to the interplay of the singers' voices, and Honors is no different. Ben's melodic baritone and Vesper's smooth alto are the perfect match for each other and they know it. Most songs have, at their heart, two voices connecting as one. It's a lovely metaphor, but their voices can also be their faults, on the rare occasion that they use them as crutches. Don't get me wrong -- they sing very well -- but sometimes their voices are for too long held at the centerpiece of their songs. The lack of a catchy hook, driving beat or anything else to grab your attention can get a bit stale.
And honestly, sometimes it even comes across as kind of cheesy. On Honors's penultimate song, "Understruggle; Yay, Win," there's a moment when Vesper sings "All the white sand in the world," and Ben moans from out of nowhere, "All the white sa-aand." It sounds like a joke from a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. That's the risk that Ben + Vesper have always run: venturing to the point where cuteness melds into self-parody. Fortunately it's a rare occurrence -- "Understruggle; Yay, Win" has a lovely round-the-campfire chorus that encapsulates the best of Ben + Vesper and proves that there is a beautiful romance and love between these two -- but there are still moments when a keen editorial eye would have served this album well.
Ultimately, there's a sense of urgency that's missing throughout Honors. The Stampers can surround themselves with more instrumentation and a fuller band, but there's still not enough suspense on Honors to make it a consistently engaging listen. Forgive me for wishing ill on their relationship, but sometimes I just want the Stampers to start shouting at each other. Perfect couples are never as fun to watch as the unhealthy ones, and Ben + Vesper's harmony can get kind of boring. Honors, with all its lazy Sunday affectations, is best heard lounging with a tasty brunch and the New York Times crossword puzzle. And while my heart goes out to them for their delightful musings about lost T-shirts and re-runs of the Fugitive, background brunch music is too limiting for their talents.
Huzzah for more marriage rock! Ok, that's simplifying matters, but on the surface Ben and Vesper Stamper share qualities with other wedded indie couples/duos (e.g., uh, they're married). Dig deeper and you find adventurous music seemingly intent on breaking free of the confines of domestic life. The group's second full-length Honors arrives after a build-up of interest in 2010, namely the band's inclusion in Paste's "Best of What's Next" series, as well as the release of a Sufjan Stevens-produced EP called LuvInIdleness.