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Wanted: Good Times

Photo by Christopher Woodcock

“There’s those moments in life where you’re just killing time between one thing and the next,” says Andy Cabic, guitarist, singer and songwriter of Vetiver, on the phone from the folk-rock band’s San Francisco home. He’s explaining the origin of “Further On,” a particularly wistful song off the band’s just-released, gently gorgeous debut album.

“You’re not really paying attention to your body language, what you’re doing, you’re just sort of . . . waiting,” he continues. “I work at a bookstore, and the windows face out on the bus stop that people are always waiting to catch the bus at. They always look so sad. The song is about being in the city, but wanting more . . . wanting nature.”

This beautiful, mournful yearning is all over Vetiver. Just look at the album’s distressed black-and-tan cover: Beneath a beclouded moon, a solitary explorer heads cautiously toward a mysterious starlight emanating from the thick woods beyond the clearing. When Cabic quavers, “The good times shouldn’t be this hard to find,” it seems like the good times actually have been that hard to find. The light, it seems, is always just ahead, and never easily reached.

The 11 songs on Vetiver were not easily made.

“It took years for these songs to come out,” chuckles Cabic. “My songs are contained in themselves. They’ve been honed and worked on for a while.”

Several of them date back to the last century, when Cabic started writing songs on his own after his previous band, the North Carolina–based Raymond Brake — described by Cabic as “typical North Carolina indie-rock stuff, angular guitars, sung and shouted vocals” — ran its course. Cabic moved to San Francisco in 1996 with friends, living in a hallway closet for a short time. His circumstances dictated — somewhat — the songs he’d be writing and demoing.

“I didn’t have the space or equipment to play electric guitar,” says Cabic. “I didn’t have an amp. But I did have an acoustic guitar, so I started writing more on that, trying to teach myself how to fingerpick. Recording at night, having to be quiet, probably determined the dynamics a little bit more. The instrumentation is folky, but that’s not my vibe, that’s just the kind of songs I’ve been writing. I was just content to try something new.”

Recorded by Pernice Brothers’ Thom Monahan last year in several Bay Area homes with a group of musicians that included a cellist, a violinist and guitarist-vocalist Devendra Banhart — a rising underground folk star in his own right — Vetiver is a long way from mid-’90s underachieving indie rock. Poignant, whimsical, melodic and exquisitely arranged for acoustic instruments, Cabic’s songs have a hushed, pastoral aura that’s genuinely timeless: They recall Neil Young at his most contemplative, Big Star at their most heartbreaking, the Velvet Underground in their soft-dream mode. Cabic may not be prolific, but he is a perfectionist, and it shows: Each song is a well-cut gem slipped from some velvet pouch.

“I’m patient about those things,” he says. “It’s always about finding the right people to play with. Devendra and I play really well together — his support was crucial in getting me out of my bedroom and into playing places.”

Cabic’s songs eventually attracted the attention of Mazzy Star ministering angel Hope Sandoval and My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O’Ciosoig, fellow Bay Area denizens with a taste for the ol’ gentle melancholia. They both lend their considerable talents to the album: Sandoval’s uniquely distant/intimate whisper-croon backs Cabic’s lead vocal on “Angels’ Share”; O’Ciosoig’s drumming on the eight-minute closer, “On a Nerve,” is Mo Tucker brilliant, giving the song its haunting, oceanic undertow.

Joanna Newsom, a longtime Banhart friend and Bay Area resident whose own remarkable solo debut album has just been released, also appears on Vetiver, playing harp on the lovely “Amerilie.” If you’re sensing a thriving community of like-minded musicians, you’re right: Newsom, Banhart and Vetiver will be touring together this summer in some sort of modern gypsy-folk caravan, arriving in Los Angeles in early July. It will be the first time Vetiver have ever performed outside the Bay Area.

Perhaps the good times will be less hard to find out on the road, away from the city and beneath the stars.

VETIVER | Vetiver (DiCristina)

Vetiver perform at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Friday, July 9, at 8 p.m.


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