I’ll admit what first caught my eye about The Viking Moses was founder and front man Brendon Massei's bio mention of Devendra Banhart, and I might have passed them right over did I not figure that a former bassist of Banhart's would be worth giving a try.
Massei has assembled his assorted and ever changing band for their second album entitled The Parts That Showed. Several unique components mark the Viking Moses as a band to keep an eye on while simultaneously holding this particularly ambitious record back. I was warned of the concept going in; the story traces and spans the lives of a teenage prostitute and the older man who falls in love with her. The premise sounds nothing short of creepy, but the press release assured me that the band sought to transcend controversial nature of the material and help us sympathize with these two misunderstood characters.
I figured if The Police could pull off a hit song with similar themes, surely a whole album devoted to the delicate subject could treat it fairly. I learned that the band, a folksy group who recorded the whole album on their producer, Paul Oldman’s farm in central Kentucky, drew their stylistic inspiration from Dolly Parton and even entertain aspirations that she might sing this album someday. So many ambitious elements made me eager to see what this new group had come up with.
When I pushed play, I found myself straining to hear the first song, turning my iPod up and down then realizing the problem was the mixing, not my device. So I sat back, dug out the lyrics, and let the impression of the music wash over me. And that impression was good. Very, very good. Complex folk leaves out the twang replacing it with an extra dash of swinging rock. Melodies lilt along easily and beautifully like a country road with just a touch of the nostalgic. Massei’s sensitive voice first boldly warbles then drops to a whisper pitch, overtaken by swinging low-fi background music. It is here is where, musically, the potential strength of the album begins to break down.
Perhaps in keeping with the rural setting and attempting to capture the naiveté of the fictional main character, the style of the music is raw and grainy, perfectly suited to a simple country ditty sung by an evenly uncomplicated drawl. The problem is that the Viking Moses is anything but simple and uncomplicated. The melodies and vocals are nuanced and multi-layered, requiring some sound manipulation to set them free, but instead they are swallowed in the corners of whatever country room or barn in which they were recorded. At times Massei’s voice croons right next to your ear but the drums sound like they’re on the other side of a tin shed wall. While I appreciated the integrity of pairing subject matter with style, in the end the rawness was less authentic and more distracting.
However, this could all be overlooked as a matter of preference; the real difficulty in the album lies in the content which is hard to ignore. It becomes clear that the main character is on the very early side of her teenage years. While the lyrics are poetically inventive the realization that the lovely words are essentially describing child prostitution dispels any aspirations of withholding judgement on the situation. The first half of the album chronologically records a young girl’s forays into prostitution interwoven with her attempt to carry on a normal childhood. After a sensual encounter in a pickup truck, the next song finds the girl longing for her mother’s comfort and the playful bows on her doll’s dresses. The precocious yet confused child falls in love with one of her older customers but the relationship inexplicably fails and the two part ways.
The girl, in the meantime grown into a woman, is found at the end of the album running with her own children from an abusive marriage. Whether the early prostitution or the relationship that resulted from it is to blame, the girl is clearly left for the worse. Meanwhile the older man who first watched the child from afar until he could first buy then woo her leaves the episode largely unchanged with nothing but the vestiges of nostalgia to show for the affair. Whatever sympathy we were supposed to feel is one sided, it is all for the tragic woman and none for the men who took advantage of her from start to finish.
The Parts That Showed has many elements of a great concept album. If The Viking Moses turned their talents toward a slightly less controversial topic they might indeed earn the attention of someone like Dolly Parton who could adapt the beautiful raw material to her own style. I would gladly give another album of theirs a listen myself, provided they stay on the PG, or at least consenting, side of controversial.