Friday, July 4, 2008

Record Review: Bowerbirds

Hymns for a Dark Horse
[2008, Dead Oceans]

Bowerbirds is a group hailing from the woods of Raleigh, North Carolina. Two of its members, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, reside in a vintage Airstream trailer. Press photos for the band find them looking comfortable in sylvan surroundings, and a recent myspace blog post pleads for readers to help care for a pair of dogs whose lives are threatened. In addition to all this, the group relies entirely on acoustic instruments (with the exception of a barely noticeable Roland foot synth). Their avian designation is well-suited.

With a few exceptions (the catalog of James Blackshaw, for example), I’ve been disillusioned with music performed solely on acoustic instruments for quite some time now. It may have started with my high school student body’s espousal of the ever-so-laidback-and-“dreamy” Jack Johnson. More likely, I think its people’s perception of “modern ‘folk’ pop”. Many seem to be under the impression that a gentle voiced singer tenderly clutching an acoustic guitar will be sincere, vulnerable, and more emotionally profound than an artist utilizing electronics. Hymns for a Dark Horse, is a great album of fairly simple music that’s honest, interesting, and, above all, genuine.

Nearly all of the lyrics written by lead singer and principle songwriter Phil Moore are meditations and nature and the danger that man poses to it (“Hooves”, “In Our Talons”, “Bur Oak”). While others are more personal (“The Ticonderoga”, “Olive Hearts”), they still display the rustic imagery that pervades throughout the album. The members seem like reverent adherents to a minimal, naturalistic lifestyle. The sweet, homespun vocal doubling of “Dark Horse” belies its dark, concrete lyrics. It’s a vision of a possibly apocalyptic future where the singer lives alone, and a haunting, cold wind blows incessantly. However, maintaining the tone underlying most of the album, he remains optimistic, and promises to never lose hope. It’s difficult to question the sincerity of this group, whose lifestyle corroborates the conviction heard in their lyrics. Their devotion and deference is encapsulated in the closing lines to “In Our Talons”: “It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous Earth.”

Moore and Tacular craft these timeless songs with a modicum of instrumentation. On a few tracks, Mark Paulson's violin and piano embellish the fixed setup of guitar, accordion. Bowerbirds’ sound is well steeped in the American folk tradition, yet feels very fresh. The guitar’s chord voicings are decidedly jazz inflected, and the accordion parts add an element of distinctly European flavor. Most importantly, Moore’s voice is the attribute that sets the band apart from their modern folk contemporaries. Many folk singers possess a beleaguered, world-weary voice that is appropriate for more bleak subject matter (the venerable Will Oldham comes to mind). Moore’s vocal timbre is smooth and sumptuous, and the majority of his lilting melodic passages sound more informed by jazz standards than Appalachian folk songs.

The band is inspiring not only for its unique synthesis of folk and jazz idioms but also for their fervent idealism. Regardless of one’s stance on environmental protection and conservation, Bowerbirds’ honesty and courage make them very endearing. Groups so authentic are difficult to come by anymore. They show an unabashed, wide-eyed optimism that is absolutely free of artifice. For as much as they preach preservation and condemn mankind’s wanton destruction, they freely admit that “We’re only human, this at least we’ve learned”. If any of it is an act, they’ve certainly fooled me.


Buy It

1 comment:

ae said...

I downloaded this, it reminds me of Andrew Bird. I don't know if it really deserves 4.5/5 kute azns like you previously suggested