Let’s get this out of the way right now and be done with it. Unless you’ve already been briefed, shocked, spurned or listening in blissful ignorance, there’s something you might want to know: Death Vessel’s Joel Thibodeau sings like a woman.
“Everybody is really afraid of being fooled,” says Thibodeau of the way his voice tends to befuddle listeners. “There are plenty of singers throughout the vast history of popular music whose speaking voices sounded nothing like their singing voices. You hear your stupid voice all day when you’re talking to people. Why would you want to sing with that voice? There’s a human need to find out what else is out there. Music and art are ways that historically, people use to get to those places.”
Speaking in a typical adult-male voice from his home near Providence, R.I., the 33-year-old Thibodeau doesn’t defend his high-pitched singing so much as point out its relative insignificance. The folk capers on Death Vessel’s second full-length, Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us (Sub Pop), are more feats of anachronistic shape-shifting than they are androgynous road-show gimmick.
“I can definitely remember the first time I heard my voice on a tape recorder as a kid,” says Thibodeau. “I was utterly embarrassed. But you hear yourself in conversation, and it’s hard to deny that that’s who you are to some degree. Listening to your singing voice or watching yourself dance, well, that doesn’t necessarily reflect your total personality. There are certain things you end up trusting about yourself and other things you don’t. I’ve just never questioned my way of doing this.”
Originally from Maine, Thibodeau has bounced around the Northeast since he began cutting records in the late ’90s. Coming up alongside a circle of Carter Family-obsessed phonograph junkies (including old-timey guitarist Micah Blue Smaldone), Thibodeau fronted Providence-based folk-pop foursome String Builder with his brother Alec until that outfit parted ways in 2001. A move to Brooklyn and a metallic name change shortly thereafter didn’t prompt Joel (pronounced “Jo-elle”) to abandon his love for sepia-toned crackle; Death Vessel’s 2005 debut, Stay Close, earned him an opening slot on tour with Calexico and Iron And Wine that year.
While Thibodeau’s high vocal register might drop jaws, its tonal relationship with his guitar melodies seems nearly impossible to dismantle. The fragile-yet-watertight union of chords and Thibodeau’s gender-bending croon lends Nothing Is Precious an almost extraterrestrial quality. The fingerpicking and arrangements are clearly rooted in Americana—dancing freely from country to folk to jazz and back again—but Thibodeau’s impressionistic, vine-swinging lyrical jumps often land you somewhere else completely. “Thick amount per unit time, agitative monarchs herniate,” he sings on “Jitterakadie.” No idea what that means, but it sounds lovely.
“The music that has done the most for me in the past, which has led me to do this myself, takes you,” says Thibodeau. “You don’t really have control over what it’s doing to you.”