Never thought I’d find myself putting tracks from an album of a Presbyterian Pastor and his wife in the playlist but, hell (whoops!), looks like I’m wrong. Meet the Rev. Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique. Carrying on the husband / wife tradition from the likes of Johnny Cash and June Carter ‘The Welcome Wagon’ lay it on you. Their influences of folk music, religion, popular culture, and church tradition combust into a collection of songs that is as soulful as it is good-humored. To top it all, it’s produced by none other than Sufjan Stevens…so it’s got to be good, right? Oh yessss!
This gorgeous brew is reflected in the group’s repertoire, which unflinchingly consolidates a vast history of “sacred” song traditions: from Old Testament psalms, to Presbyterian Psalters of the 17th century, to iconoclastic pop innovators of the 1960s (The Velvet Underground), to charismatic Catholics of the 1970s (Lenny Smith), and into the melancholy lovelorn pop of the 1980s (The Smiths). There are even a few originals. Armed with a particleboard parlor guitar and a plastic glockenspiel, pastor and wife stumble their way through an arresting catalog of hymns—hallowed and unholy—with the simple desire to know their Maker—and to know each other—more intimately. The result—due, in part, to producer/arranger Sufjan Stevens—is an awe-inspiring collection of hymns, pop covers, and originals that render soulful stunts from quiet skirmishes of home recordings. Gathering together a camaraderie of musical helpers (among them members of Vito’s church: a gospel choir, lap steel guitar, upright bass, and a brass ensemble), Sufjan enlivens The Welcome Wagon’s quaint haberdashery of songs with epic flourishes, drawing out allusions to honky-tonk, Broadway theater, and funk with the curatorial eye of an over-excited musicologist. The final product results in a stunning cross section of rehearsals and home recordings serendipitously captured in living rooms, churches, and home studios across Brooklyn and Queens over the course of some eight-odd years.
The Welcome Wagon observe a musical tradition conjoined with marriage that pays tribute to a long line of iconic couples—Johnny Cash and June Carter, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina, Captain and Tennille, and more recently, The White Stripes. The Welcome Wagon also reside in the fussy category called “church music,” where family and theology have long accompanied the musical deeds of married partners: the Original Carter Family, Bill and Gloria Gaither, and Mom and Pop Winans are a few examples. You’d be hard pressed to call the Welcome Wagon a groundbreaking supplement to the genre of gospel duos. They are not flashy performers. Their hymns— when stripped of a producer’s vigorous arrangements—are modest, understated, and idiosyncratic shrugs compared to the furious pathos of Blind Willie Johnson and his wife Willie B., or the bluesy emotion of The Consolers. But the apparent lack of hyperbole and didacticism, the absence of rhetorical drama and religious fervor are what make the music of the Welcome Wagon so fascinating. It doesn’t impose its religious pitch on the listener with hyped up garnishes of sound; it merely conveys the deepest of convictions with the deadpan verdict of a surgeon. Sure, their debut album unveils showy guitar riffs, piano codas, harmonica solos, a rowdy chorus, and an imposing flourish of brass instruments like wartime canons. But at the heart of it—if you really listen carefully—there’s really just a pastor and his wife tentatively singing in the quiet privacy of their own home.