(Self-released, CD, digital download)
On their 2010 debut, Kicking Sawdust , the Vermont Joy Parade  introduced audiences to the lowbrow, high-art concept of “suspender fusion.” It was a terrific album that ably distilled the band’s legendarily unpredictable, energetic, Vaudeville-esque live show into recorded form. That’s no mean feat. On their latest album, New Anthem, the VJP suffer no sophomore slump, displaying a notable evolution of style and substance and once again delivering a record that is a worthy complement to their live act.
As on the debut outing, songwriting duties are shared on New Anthem. Though well matched and balanced, the differences in style among the band’s six songwriters were generally evident on Kicking Sawdust. Not so much here. Whether by design or simply as the result of the musicians growing together over the past two years, each of the album’s 15 tracks seems an inextricable piece of a larger, more cohesive whole. And while there is no shortage of uproarious, old-timey shake and stomp, a focused and, dare I say, modern feel nudges up against the band’s signature timelessness in both songwriting and arrangements.
In particular, the performances of Anna Pardenik, whose banshee wail is equal parts Natalie Merchant and Neko Case, stand out for … not standing out. On the ballad “Don’t Tell My Poor Mama,” she spins a heart-wrenching tale of wanderlust and insecurity. But it perfectly sets up Ben Strosberg’s lusty banjo- and accordion-driven rover, “Devil’s Eyes.” And that in turn equally frames Devin Robinson’s riotous “My Gun.”
Some credit for the record’s cohesion likely belongs with recording engineer and producer Ryan Power. But New Anthem isn’t just a product of well-tweaked knobs and faders; the arrangements and instrumental performances are efficient and artful. Though you wouldn’t call the record restrained, it feels like VJP did rein in its often-unwieldy, misfit charm just a bit. That choice places the songs, rather than individual performances, at the forefront. The songs have room to breathe and, collectively, make up one of the best local albums in recent memory.
The Vermont Joy Parade play a string of local shows this week, including On the Rise Bakery in Richmond on Wednesday, May 16; Nutty Steph’s in Middlesex on Thursday, May 17; Radio Bean in Burlington on Friday, May 18; and Parker Pie Co. in West Glover on Saturday, May 19.