This Colorado duo have always inhabited a rather improbable and lonely niche with their "bootgazer" aesthetic, but their third EP makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world. Due to superficial vocal similarities, I suspect that Joe Sampson and Jeffrey Wentworth Stephens are probably doomed to a lifetime of Wilco comparisons, yet the two groups are pursuing very divergent aesthetic ends: Wentworth Kersey have staked out their own spare, intimate, sublime, and sun-baked territory and betray no aspirations towards changing that any time soon. What has changed, however, is that they keep getting better and better at doing it. Their last EP was certainly pleasant, but it didn't have nearly the wealth of great, instantly memorable songs as they’ve managed to assemble here.
Wentworth Kersey have a rather unusual dynamic at their core. One half–Joe Sampson–is a talented singer/songwriter of the folk/alt-country variety. Jeffrey Wentworth Stevens, however, comes from an experimental/electronic music background. Rather than attempting to reach a doomed compromise between their respective sounds, it appears that Joe Sampson writes exactly what he wants, and then Stevens adds layers and textures until the songs reach a state of Kranky-fied pseudo-ambient beauty. Whatever their system, it seems to be working quite well.
The duo originally described their collaborations as "sci-fi folk experiments," but they seem to have evolved to the point where that is no longer quite accurate. At the very least, there is almost nothing overtly "sci-fi" here, and the experimentation (while there) is pretty inconspicuous. Normally, that lack of weirdness and unpredictability would frustrate me, but this is an exceptional case: Stevens knows exactly what he is doing. Sampson's songs are completely solid on their own and most distractions would be both unwelcome and self-defeating. As such, the electronics mainly lurk in the periphery and provide color and atmosphere.
That said, Stevens' presence is not at all wasted: he merely serves to elevate good songs into great ones. Every piece seems like it has a warm, shimmering halo of synth bliss around it, which provides a very effective soft-focus counterbalance to Sampson's gritty heartbreak. Occasionally the synthesizers manage to steal the spotlight a bit, but it is usually due to their awesomeness rather than their volume, such as in the elegantly mournful "Since You Arrived." Jeffrey certainly manages to sneak in some sly spaciness from time to time too, like warped, backwards vocal snippets or Acid Mothers Temple-style whooshes and burbles, but he is refreshingly tactful about it. On rare occasions, he even manages to dazzle on both fronts simultaneously, as he does with the reversed Tejano samples in the chorus of "Walking."
Despite the obvious shoegazer influences and general tendency toward melancholy subject manner, Sampson is anything but mopey. In fact, he's a very charismatic, powerful, and articulate vocalist. He's a damn good songwriter too, as each of the eight pieces here is simple, direct, and memorably hooky. And short. There are, of course, a couple of songs that didn't make a big impression on me and I did not particularly like the opening "Broken Down Knees" (sung mostly in French, unexpectedly), but there are at least two or three songs here that I absolutely love. That is an uncommon occurrence, even among bands that I actively follow. Sampson's songs are very honest and human and when he goes for emotional resonance, he nails it (though not without a little musical help).
I like this a lot. People with less outré taste will probably like it even more than I do. It seems highly improbable that this band will be able to remain a secret if this EP gets heard.