The Staves are three sisters with one beautifully blended voice. The trio, from Watford, have been honing and perfecting that voice over two studio albums and a variety of EPs, singles and collaborations – notably with Bon Iver frontman, Justin Vernon – and have now reached a point where they are revered, the world over, as incomparable, unspeakably emotive vocal performers.
It is, however, probably fair to say that, until recently, the Staverly-Taylor sisters have not had their considerable talents truly tested. Fans of the girls will be delighted to hear that, on their latest project with New York chamber ensemble, yMusic, the Staves are not only provided with a challenge worthy of their abilities, but prove themselves as genuinely vital performers and songwriters.
The Way Is Read does an excellent job of establishing what makes the Staves so special in the album’s breath-taking opening track, ‘Hopeless’; a daring acapella piece in three-part harmony. The song is a welcome step up in complexity and paves the way for their most adventurous vocal performance to date: the album’s second track, ‘Take Me Home’.
The piece introduces yMusic in particularly dramatic and dextrous fashion. It’s a dark, violent, almost gothic track which makes use of all of yMusic’s collective bite, with the ensemble putting their full energy into angry, dissonant, interlocking arpeggio patterns. The Staves are utilised, in the latter half of the track, as another instrument in the ensemble, adding impassioned “ooh”s, “aah”s and hair-raising “HA!”s to wonderful dramatic effect.
The rest of the album is, top to tail, a collection of spine-tingling, contemporary chamber pieces, each integrating the Staves’ cocktail of vocal delights in creative ways. ‘All My Life’ introduces the sisters in the track’s second half, following a particularly frantic, spindly, intertwining instrumental frenzy. The soothing vocal melody laced with words of longing and self-reflection provides a sudden, but not jarring, sense of juxtaposition to the piece.
‘Silent Side’ and ‘Trouble on My Mind’ feel like more traditionally structured Staves songs, where yMusic take more of an accompanying role, but the ensemble still manages to shine through here, producing counter melodies and harmonies that are just as serene and evocative as those sung by the sisters. ‘Trouble on My Mind’, in particular, feels like a partnership, with the trio and the ensemble moving together through expressive changes in speed and volume. The whole track has an ocean-like feeling to it, with the sound of blending voices and instruments washing in and out of focus like waves against the shore.
Two of the album’s highlights are interpretations of previously written music. ‘Year of the Dog’ is a cover of a piece from Sufjan Stevens’ composition, Run Rabbit Run, and here, once again, the Staves become an instrument within the ensemble, adding gorgeous vocal embellishments to yMusic’s take on Stevens’ bespoke melodic and harmonic style. ‘Courting Is a Pleasure’, perhaps the record’s most cerebral track, is even more intriguing considering its origins as a traditional folk song. yMusic’s accompaniment takes a decidedly ghostly and dissonant left turn here, whilst each sister glides, ethereally, through the song’s verses as the accompaniment gets increasingly frantic with screeching violins and irregular, guttural cello stabs. It’s a profoundly beautiful and unnerving interpretation of a tune well-travelled.
The album concludes with the title track. ‘The Way Is Read’ isn’t as violent as ‘Take Me Home’, or as aesthetically striking as ‘Courting Is a Pleasure’, but it’s a wonderfully forceful composition in its own right. The sisters’ vocal intensity reaches its peak here, alternating between unison, their trademark three-part harmony, and a minimalist inspired, rhythmic layering of their three voices. All the while, yMusic echo that minimalist style with their accompaniment, building up layer upon layer of motifs to a wonderfully dramatic conclusion to both the song and the album as a whole.
The Way Is Read is a meeting of the minds that has resulted in a compositional leap forward for both the Staves and yMusic. The album is both visceral and cerebral rewarding its listeners for their perseverance through the project’s more challenging moments, with more accessible, yet equally impressive moments of serene reflection in flawless, yet unmistakably human, three-part harmony. The Staves have a sound like no other vocal trio, and, now that this album exists, it is fair to say that nobody brings out the full extent of their abilities like yMusic.
You can purchase the album here