Joel Thibodeau’s star was on the rise in 2008: The Rhode Island singer-songwriter and Death Vessel mainstay had built momentum from his North East Indie debut album Stay Close and through tours opening for Low and José Gonzaléz. He signed with Sub Pop to release 2008′s Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, but there have been no new Death Vessel recordings in the six years since. Thibodeau hasn’t been completely silent, playing shows in Europe and domestically, including a tour opening for Sigur Rós’s Jónsi, but the gap between recordings is intriguing.
His new album, Island Intervals, shows one result of his hiatus in its richer sound, courtesy of Alex Somer’s Icelandic studio. Thibodeau’s lilting falsetto sounds as airy and innocent as ever, but he’s expanded his neo-folk instrumentation, and the soft backing vocals on “Mercury Dime” and the intense percussion on “Velvet Antlers” make Death Vessel sound more like a collaborative band than the solo project feel of his earlier albums. Island Interval‘s first single, “Ilsa Drown,” is a duet with Jónsi, and the two countertenors intertwine to conjure up a spritely fantasy world.
Thibodeau does just fine singing on his own, though: His voice slides lithely on “Island Vapors,” backed by the expansive crescendos of his band to create a sound that is as majestic as it is understated. “We Agreed” opens with a rare peek back into Thibodeau’s simpler recording days before gradually expanding into a fuller, more booming sound. On that song, as elsewhere, Thibodeau leans on pastoral imagery — an old canoe on a wharf andtales of skipping stones across the lake describe visions of a simpler life. Album-opening “Ejecta” paints a picture that’s still rustic but a bit less concrete, with Thibodeau’s oblique images of running creeks (“the water will casually follow its route”) and caged birds. While the lightness of Thibodeau’s voice is unmistakable, his fuller delivery and arrangement of these songs is markedly different from his earlier recordings, showing a clear evolution during those years away from the studio.