The Staves – review

Village Underground, London

The phenomenal success of Mumford & Sons has set major labels on a frantic chase to acquire their own well-mannered, folk-tinged pop troupes to annex sales charts across the globe. It's a safe bet that the eyes of the lucky A&R executive who spotted the Staves immediately sprouted cartoon-style dollar signs.

The Staves are Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor, three close-harmonising sisters from Watford who write and trill all their own material. With three US tours already under their belts, they recently completed a UK jaunt with Bon Iver, climaxing at Wembley Arena, which saw them invited on stage every night to sing backing harmonies with the Wisconsin wonder.

Their own debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, is a neat, pretty and meticulously traditional affair that plants its winsome flag equidistant between the English lyricism of Sandy Denny, on the one hand, and 1970s Laurel Canyon folk-rock classicism (think Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) on the other. It is beautifully turned, and yet its chaste, prim melodies can sound more than a little anaemic.

It is thus a relief to discover that the Staveley-Taylors are far more fun and spunky live than they are pale and interesting. The drily droll Emily provides an enjoyably self-effacing running commentary on the evening, while her apparently demure little sister is not afraid to turn the air blue: "We were shitting ourselves," confesses Camilla, musing on a recent appearance on Later … with Jools Holland.

It is impossible not to marvel at the Staves' superbly crystalline and interwoven singing voices. Whether they are a result of sibling instincts and tonal similarities or simply a decade of practice and hard work, their pristine harmonies on fragile numbers such as Pay Us No Mind and In the Long Run are unimpeachable.

Sadly, most of their material is not remotely as stunning. The whispered set opener, The Motherlode, sounds blanched and bloodless, a mere sepia sigh. Far better are the hypnotic, Laura Marling-like single Tongue Behind My Teeth and the gorgeous, mostly a cappella Wisely and Slow. After a while, however, the set's relentless musical conservatism begins to feel stifling.

An evening that frequently has the feel of a rarefied school recital ends with a pitch-perfect swoon through the album's title track, a further superfluous reminder that the Staves are never less than pleasant and pretty. On the question of whether there is any more to them than that, the jury remains out.

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Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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