Though they have all the requisite hipster credentials - wasted folk aspirations, nods to Bert Janch and Donovan, and a dulcimer -- Philadelphian acid-folk revivalists Espers are a band apart, eschewing the grotty glamour of the Banhart-led downtown "freak folk" crowd for an altogether earthier tone. You can call them "New Weird America" if you'd like, but really, the only strange thing about them is the frilly frocks and pointed shoes they don on stage at world premier sleazy denim 'n' leather clubs.
Although The Weed Tree has been eagerly anticipated, it isn't a proper follow-up to the band's mesmerizing debut; it's a collection of covers that blur the line between mealy-mouthed folk meandering and truculent psych-rock. The group's eccentric leader, Greg Weeks, has LSD running through his veins; his synapses fire at an alarming rate as he scampers around the studio like a drug-crazed Bacharach, arranging midget string sections and homeless guitar heroes into a surreal symphony of color and light. It's a beautiful thing to behold -- an album that not only exceeds the sum of its numerous parts but outdoes the figures that inspired its creation.
The band's saucer-pupiled version of Blue Oyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths" swings readily from tremolo-swathed orch-pop to fuse-blowing, guitar-smashing psych-rock, finally decaying into a phantasmagoric swirl of pipe organ and stripped-bark feedback. Durutti Column's "Tomorrow" is sketched out with a ghostly wisp of glockenspiel and fairy bells, and Espers' stunningly straightforward arrangement of the traditional "Black is the Color" is a thing of chiming beauty, with flapping sprite wings and imploding star bursts panning around your head like an absinthe-sozzled Tinkerbelle.
The sole new Espers song here, "Dead King", is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most impressive thing on display, dredging heartbreaking crystalline pop from a well of Medieval mourning. Just when you think it couldn't get any darker, a brace of raven-winged violins and resin-caked guitars burst to the forefront and illuminate Meg Baird's sweet, longing refrain. Grandiloquent without being pretentious, "Dead King" is a slice of immaculate beauty, and certainly bodes well for the group's "difficult" second album.
Espers' Utopian, slightly naive view of modern Americana rings startlingly true in these utterly fucked-up times, where there's often so much faux-reality swirling around us that we lose sight of honest-to-god humanity. The Weed Tree was forged in the same fertile fantasyland we inhabited as children, oblivious to the heavy state of world affairs and blissfully unaware of the existence of people who would steal our dreams, our heroes and our solitude.