It’s very easy to overlook the numerous eclectic and eccentric art-folk bands that exist. Sufjan Stevens is certainly the most notable – and along with his record label, Asthmatic Kitty, other such bands have also gotten some attention. The Welcome Wagon, of Asthmatic Kitty fame, is a new addition to the Tooth & Nail roster and have released Light Up the Stairs after a successful crowdfunding campaign. Sonically, the husband-wife duo finds themselves alongside Half-Handed Cloud, Danielson Famille, Songs of Water, and the aforementioned Sufjan Stevens.
Light Up the Stairs is the third full-length offering from Rev. Vito Aiuto and his wife, Monique Aiuto. It serves as a follow-up to 2012’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Unsurprisingly, it’s an interesting blend of sounds: on some songs, gospel and soul elements are front and center; other times, orchestral elements are the main foundation. In spite of the variety, for the sake of the reader, I’d clarify the style as folk with elements of chamber pop.
The album opens with the soulful “Galatians 2:20”. There’s a waltz feeling here, accompanied by a classical guitar tone, a fair bit of piano, and plenty of bass. Monique’s vocals take lead here, though Vito does join in – along with a choir. Lyrics, unsurprisingly, are taken from the the verse of which the song is named. There’s a strong sense of groove on the track.
Vito’s vocal’s are central on “All These Trees”, a more rock-influenced tracks which still sees a good use of piano. It’s faster than its predecessors, but many of the same elements are at play: the guitar tonality, strong bass, and overall groove. “I’m not scared to say I’m not okay / but I’m terrified to stay this way,” Vito recites. The tempo shifts and introduces more space, allowing the repeated chorus to simmer.
“HCQ1” is the shortest track on the record, focused on the catechism question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”
On “In the Garden”, Vito’s vocal timbre could be mistaken for Stevens’; it’s certainly not a fault, as it fosters a sense of familiarity and grants the track a sense of levity. Brass and auxiliary percussion come in toward the end of the song for a brief, climactic moment that evaporates to a minimalist ending.
The album’s title track is certainly noteworthy. Vito and Monique exchange vocal responsibilities, even harmonizing at times. On the chorus, Vito’s vocals remind me a bit of Deas Vail’s Wesley Blaylock. My own complaint is the song’s length – it feels a bit too short given its power.
“St. Tom’s Lullaby” is another Stevens-esque track, though here it’s due largely to minimalist instrumentation as well. Piano is the foundation of the track, with auxiliary percussion like shakers serving as the main rhythmic foundation. Woodwinds and strings create for a cinematic close and they weave into the mix.
“The Outside Road” begins with an old radio sample before quickly returning to the sound displayed on “All These Trees”. Once again, the groove is back, the tempo is faster, and bass is in full form. Of course, brass accompaniment helps provide even more energy. However, much like the title track, I’m disappointed in the brevity here – the track gains momentum then closes a bit too quickly.
Orchestral elements are prominent on “Maybe You’re Right”, where strings, vibraphone, and vocal overlays form the song’s climax. Lyrics are worshipful in their own right, finding a proper place amid an album full of overt references to Scripture.
“It’s So Hard” is another rock-driven track, though it’s not as fast as its counterpart. Vito and Monique once again trade off vocal responsibilities. The musical backbone is an interesting mix of rock, jazz, and indie. The piano parts ultimately set the mood of the song.
The album’s penultimate track, “Lamb of God”, is a hymn-like track which fuses choir vocals, string arrangements, woodwinds, and brass for one of the most orchestral moments on the album. Of course, guitar, piano, and the duo’s vocals are also present here.
The album closes of “The Greatest Gift”, is driven by finger-picked acoustic guitar. Despite its musical simplicity, it still has a full feeling. Other elements certainly do come into play, but there are no moments where the track feels empty.
Ultimately, Light Up the Stairs is a strong album that blends a mix of genres, instrumental arrangements, tempos, and vocal styles. It’s certainly not an album for everyone – the rock-based songs do have a more classic rock feeling to them, many of the songs are slower, and there’s the noticeable Sufjan Stevens comparisons. However, for those who enjoy these aspects, or who would be willing to overlook one or two of them, Light Up the Stairs is truly an ambitious album that defies the expectations of singer-songwriter, folk, and husband-wife duo releases. Some songs feel criminally short due to their dynamics, but this certainly isn’t an album that was written in pursuit of mass appeal. It is genuine, worshipful, and artistic. It is an endeavor in creativity and love.
For fans of: Sufjan Stevens, Half-Handed Cloud, Danielson Famille, Songs of Water