Nervous But Excited,
Once More ... with Feeling
(Pleasantly Aggressive, 2006)

A pair of women, a pair of voices, a pair of acoustic guitars. It's hardly a unique musical mix. But with Once More ... with Feeling Kate Peterson and Sarah Cleaver, the particular pair of women who make up Nervous But Excited, have produced an album that is rather more than the sum of those parts.

There are a number of qualities that help keep Nervous But Excited from blurring into the background noise of similar duos. Kate and Sarah have quite different voices, Kate the smoother textured croon on the album's opening track "Lansing," Sarah the more twangy, gruffer warble on "Echo." The combination of vocals revealing a third musical personality, one that helps keep things fresh as the listener travels through the 11 tracks featured on Nervous But Excited's first full-length album.

The songs themselves tend to break from a standard verse-chorus, verse-chorus architecture. This makes them less immediately memorable, but the tracks hold up to repeated listening in a way that more predictably structured songs frequently do not. The group's lyrics tend to be somewhat adventurous, but the melodies are rather understated and might well blend into one another were it not for the vocal differentiation and some nice production choices. The judicious use of mandolin, banjo, accordion and violin helps to individualize the tracks.

Perhaps the most challenging song here is "200 Years," a song written and primarily sung by Sarah, whose vocals I like less than Kate's. Cleaver launches into the opening line, "My boy's got a gun," with as much twang as she can muster, but in this tale of a young black man "fighting for freedom like his great grandpa did," this abrasive vocal texture works tremendously well.

The other stand-out tracks are the Peterson compositions "Lansing," a haunting tribute to the band's hometown -- "I watch my rearview down oneway streets just to get a perspective unfamiliar to me" -- and "Wishlist," the album's most musically aggressive track.

If there's a production area that doesn't measure up to the standards set by the rest of this release, it's the percussion. For the most part the drumming, used on just five of the album's 11 songs, is restricted to brushes on snare. Only "Wishlist," the second to last track, makes use of anything approaching a full drum kit. Like the other individualizing features of this disc it's a stylistic choice that works quite well. But a few of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the percussion, from the use of hand claps in "Pockets of Light" to Cleaver's tabla playing on "Living Room, Early AM," feel as though they've been given much too little attention. The recording of these elements is exceptionally thin, and it draws attention away from the fuller sound of the rest of the instrumentation. This is particularly true in the album's closing instrumental where the tabla has been given all the sonic resonance of a cardboard box.

Once More ... with Feeling is the kind of album that's not going to take the music world by storm. But it has strengths enough to satisfy Nervous But Excited's existing fan base and it should help build their audience and reputation considerably.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
21 April 2007

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