Common Prayer has its collective fingers in so many pies, it’s not unreasonable to think of them as kitchen sink connoisseurs. They’re based both in Kingston and Brooklyn, but with a tangible connection to England; they both embrace technology yet retain a classic, almost rural approach to music. Common Prayer is complicated, and it works for them.
Though certainly a band in every sense on stage and on record (the fantastic debut, There is a Mountain), Common Prayer is primarily the work of two people: Jason Sebastian Russo and Alexandra Marvar. The musical partnership was borne of a romantic one, though the balance in nuance and temperament is more successful than one might have seen in mid-‘70s Fleetwood Mac or mid-‘90s Spiritualized. Whatever tension is found in the music of Common Prayer, it’s in its inherent inclusiveness rather than drug-induced paranoia.
Russo’s indie pedigree is sound: A former touring member of Mercury Rev, his primary musical outlet has been his own Hopewell, a psych rock outfit who’ve released five albums and a pair of EP’s of increasingly accomplished music. But while he’s still very much a part of Hopewell, Russo began crafting a collection of songs which needed a different perspective.
“Basically, one of my other personalities needed to make a record,” he said. “Hopewell was busy releasing last year's record, Good Good Desperation. And once the Hill Farm barn studio got a hold of the songs, they strayed so far out of Hopewell territory the project couldn't help but take on a life of its own.”
The Hill Farm barn in question is located in Steventon, an English village south of Oxford.
“Our friends, the Bennetts, throw the Truck Music Festival there every year, and they keep a recording studio in a storage container in one of the cow barns,” Russo recalled. “I went with a head full of about ten songs. And we built them using anything we could find laying around—broken drum machines, a rusty French horn, empty barrels...we even used the barn door as the kick drum.”
The music which became There is a Mountain was mixed with Damon Whittemore at Valvetone Studios in Brooklyn, the entire process from inception to completion a rather quick process which Russo applauded as “impulsive.” Indeed, the album has a charmingly unhinged feel, a rural psychedelic folk vibe running throughout, with the odd sample, electronic rhythm or backwards loop adding texture to the whole. It’s a party, one of love and celebration, and if that sounds a little corny it’s unintended. Even a cynic with a cold, barely beating heart in his chest would be hard pressed to not get a rush of warmth from the shuffling rhythm, subtle harmonies and glorious organ in “Of Saints.” And even when things get a little weird (“Moneyspider”) or comparatively noisy (“Hopewell”), it’s absolutely comfortable and worth every bit of attention one is willing to give it. Never mind the local connection; There is a Mountain is one of the universal albums of the year, period.
Of the band’s English connection, they’ve spent much of July and early August of this year there, and in Wales as well, playing shows and adding new fans a little bit at a time. It’s a process they plan to continue upon their return to America, in Brooklyn, the Hudson Valley and eventually beyond. Even the band’s name is derived from an English visit, where Russo and Marvar spotted a book called Common Prayer in a box outside a closed Oxford bookshop.
“The Brits have a different perspective on what we do, because they see it as ‘American music,’ and they are in general more thoughtful about it because of its foreign origins,” Russo said. “The music that has mass appeal in England is fairly close to the kind of music Common Prayer makes, whereas in America the more popular types of music are hip-hop and R&B.”
Russo said the connection is also tangible in the atmosphere, especially between Steventon and Kingston.
“The landscapes resemble one another,” he said. “When we’re in England, it never feels too foreign. At least not musically.”
Already in the works are shows in the Hudson Valley, including a showcase at Backstage Studio Productions in Kingston on September 11 and the O+ Festival, also in uptown Kingston from October 8-10. It’s all a part of Common Prayer’s hands-on approach to music, one which incorporates a timeless sense of community into the modern indie aesthetic.
“An indie band in today's musical landscape is a band that is free,” said Russo. “It can do whatever it wants: It is not bound by convention; it is not sales-driven; it doesn't have hair and make-up or wardrobe provided. It is the music of the folk. These days the cheapest way to make music is a laptop, so intricate-sounding recordings can be produced by common people and made widely available, thanks to basic home digital recording technology and the internet. The problem then becomes, how do people sort out the wheat from the chaff. But since journalism has followed the same path, writing and musical criticisms are cheap and easy to make widely available via the blogosphere. So there are more independent music critics for more independent music makers. And now anybody with a modem and the motivation can discover new music and seek out the accompanying critical feedback. Thus was born the indie rock nation.”
And lest one be concerned a successful Common Prayer would lose sight of what makes them so special, Russo has this to consider.
“Our ultimate goal is to colonize a small satellite,” he said. “Ideally one that is independent of the earth's gravity. Alex and I will be benevolent rulers and we will make sure that there is a chicken in every pot.”