Naam, Vow: Forward and Beyond

Four years between albums seems like a long time. But in the span since Naam released their self-titled debut LP on Tee Pee Records in 2009, the Brooklyn-based outfit have issued a 7″ of Nirvana covers, two reissues of their debut Kingdom EP (review here) — the latest of which is a vinyl out through Italy’s Heavy Psych Sounds earlier this year — and 2012’s The Ballad of the Starchild EP (track stream here), which introduced keyboardist/organist John Weingarten, who’d already been playing with Naam live for some time by then and since has been made the permanent fourth member of the band alongside guitarist/vocalist Ryan Hamilton, bassist/vocalist John Preston Bundy and drummer Eli Pizzuto. Naam did all this, plus toured in the US and Europe, so when it comes to a question of whether or not there was a delay in crafting Vow, their new sophomore full-length, the more appropriate line of query seems to be if they weren’t so busy they just forgot to make it. Either way, the highly-varied 12-track collection shows a considerable amount of growth from the heavy psych of the self-titled, and with Weingarten on board, Naam have nearly perfected a slowed-down version of Hawkwind‘s space rush that at some of its most satisfying moments nestles into thick rolling grooves and still presents a feel open enough so that neither periodic ambient freakouts like “In and Thru” nor the moody shoegazing of “Skyscraper” are out of place alongside the swaggering rhythm of “Midnight Glow” or “Pardoned Pleasure” and the rousing culmination the penultimate “Beyond” provides.

In its totality, Vow is a flowing conceptual work best taken on as a whole, stylistically ambitious but without the so-often-corresponding pretense, and at a vinyl-ready 37 minutes, it’s best taken as a whole. Naam recorded with Jeff Berner at Galuminum Foil, who also handled The Ballad of the Starchild and the Nirvana covers single 7″, and the pairing suits them well, since for all of the effects and organ swirling around the songs, Hamilton‘s vocals and the backing support that Bundy and Weingarten supply sound natural and are well balanced within the multi-tiered mix. Songs vary in approach on an almost per-track basis, and while those who caught wind of Kingdom or Naam might think of cuts like “Vow,” “Of the Hour,” “Midnight Glow” and “Beyond” as anchors, anyone who caught wind of The Ballad of the Starchild is better prepared for the atmospherics, context and diversity the other songs on Vow provide, be it the space-country rambling of “Laid to Rest” or the sweetly echoing keys of closer “Adagio,” which is just one of several instances throughout on which Weingarten is put in the role of driving the material. That was the case with “Exit Theme,” which rounded out The Ballad of the Starchild in (very) similar fashion, but here, the synth and organ plays a central part in Naam attaining the textures even of a guitar-driven cut like “Vow,” Hamilton, Bundy and Pizzuto following the forward motion of the progression while Weingarten gives the song its swirl without distraction from the rhythmic push, striking a hard balance in a manner that sounds so natural it’s almost obvious.

Of course, Naam‘s penchant for effects and pedal work hasn’t changed, and that only adds to the fluidity as “Vow” leads the way out of the synth-heavy opener “A Call” and into the transitional drum echoes of “In and Thru,” which in turn moves back to the molten space rock of “Pardoned Pleasure,” Weingarten adding a late ’60s organ sound to the song’s already memorable verse descent and chorus while Hamilton‘s vocals come to the fore atop airy guitar, solid bass and impressive tom runs from Pizzuto. There’s a lot going on, and some of the vocal patterning seems rushed, but they cool down in the midsection before another freakout ensues, subsides and the acoustic/synth exploration “Laid to Rest” offers a brief 1:49 glimpse at alternate-reality Americana. That may be where side A of the vinyl ends — it would make sense with the swell of synth tying everything together and the organ that starts up the intro-sounding “Brightest Sight” at the start of side B, but I don’t actually know — but the tracklisting actually splits in half following the relatively raucous “Of the Hour,” which picks up from its quiet, flowing intro to a formidable stomp, moody vocals from Hamilton and Vow‘s richest groove and most memorable hook, Bundy backing Hamilton in the chorus, which has a cadence that in its last two lines that keeps reminding me of Talking Heads, though that’s almost certainly not its intent. Howls and shouts pervade the next verse before the chorus interrupts and Pizzuto adds momentum to the kick drum in the second half of the song to fill out an already righteous progression as an instrumental outro leads the way toward the quiet contemplations of “Skyscrapper.”

Led by the bass for a darker feel with minimal drums behind, futuristic swirl surrounding and a wash of vocal effects, “Skyscrapper” (Note: It may be “Skyscraper,” since that’s how it’s pronounced in the song, but the promo has two ‘P’s in the tracklisting, so that’s what I’m rolling with) feels quick at three minutes, but uses that time effectively to shift out of the rush of “Of the Hour” and setup a return to a swaying middle-ground on “Midnight Glow.” Like some of the other material on Vow, “Skyscrapper” doesn’t seem as fully realized or as cohesive as it could be, but the tradeoff is a song and an album that’s lean and wastes none of its or its listeners’ time, so it’s a tradeoff I’m more than willing to make. “Midnight Glow” gets down on some dirty blues psych, Hamilton as much the frontman as he’s ever been and then some, and cycles through the verse and an instrumental chorus twice before breaking into effects and synth, stopping and Bundy introducing the instrumental progression that will lead the way out, which they nail and call back to the earlier chorus, smoothly, fluidly and engagingly, giving “Beyond” — a Naam epic in the tradition of “The Starchild” from The Ballad of the Starchild, and “Kingdom,” which was shared across the self-titled and the EP of the same name — as suitable a precendent as it could ask. “Beyond” is shorter than any of Naam‘s other grand statements — perhaps they’re moving away from feeling like they need to make them — but no less accomplished, a grand melody emerging through synth notes over riff cycles that straighten out in the chorus that gets cut when Pizzuto and Hamilton‘s accenting guitar underscore a vocal rush of repeated lines that come after another instrumental rise and fall to serve as Vow‘s apex, Hamilton backed by layers of echoing backing vocals that momentarily take over until another stop sets a synth foundation for a slower, joyous psychedelic march that leads through the last couple minutes of the song.

Here is Naam at their most liquid and their most lysergic, Pizzuto and Bundy locking in a firm groove but holding it loosely as Hamilton calmly drawls out a couple lines and Weingarten gives quantum charge to what’s undeniably a consuming whole. Everyone seems to be howling at one point, and just when you think it might keep going like that forever, they coalesce into a a straightforward final musical push and cap “Beyond” with fading vocals, giving way seamlessly to “Adagio”‘s synth epilogue. If not for The Ballad of the Starchild having ended in like manner, the relatively minimal ethos with which Naam draw Vow down might be a surprise, but in context it makes as much sense as one could reasonably ask, and highlights once more just how much of a four-piece this once-trio has become. More pivotal in terms of their output, Naam‘s creative leap since their self-titled has been no less observable than the change in their lineup, and Vow shows as much potential for what they might do subsequently as mastery of their current amorphous form. They’re not the band people expected them to be or the band I expected them to be, and on their second album, that’s part of the appeal.

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One Response to “Naam, Vow: Forward and Beyond”

  1. […] its totality, Vow is a flowing conceptual work best taken on as a whole, stylistically ambitious but without the […]

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