If you were going to tell a John Bunyan-style allegory about modern indie folk revivalism in America, it might read a lot like the life of painter Thomas Hart Benton. The son of a US Congressman and namesake of the Senator who popularized westward expansion (who gave him “a kind of compulsion for greatness”), Benton found himself stuck between the abstract expressionist avant-garde of his day and his own pragmatic patriotism. A modernist who nevertheless couldn’t shake the nagging appeal of provincial American life, Benton was drummed out of the New York art world for his unfashionable style and somewhat confrontational personality, his pragmatic vision taken as didactic or even fascist.
Benton is remembered for his attention to America’s multifarious regional textures, and while for too many of his critics that remains simply another attribute of his reactionary posture, it in fact represents an anti-elite ethos that sets the struggles, aspirations, and traditions of common people against a protean modernity.
Folk music, the laudator temporis acti of pop, today is even more absurd than Benton venerating regional particularity during the Great Depression, because that sense of locally-contingent culture is even more degraded. The strains of naturalism, neo-tribal aesthetics, landscape album covers — all of it is more hallucinatory than reactionary; the new shamanism has always seemed like the ironic face of hip atheism (Edgar Cayce believed in God!), the Akashic Record or Primordial Scene, or some other transcendent concept as a sort of stand-in for the collective consciousness of the Internet Age — because you can’t be too literal about these things y’know.
So what do Phil Moore and Beth Tacular and their new album have to do with all of this? Because a lot of good folk music, present subject included, shares a dialectical similarity to Benton’s representationalism — not because they’re both atavistic, but because their art regards the past longingly, from a distance; Benton returned to his regionalism after stints in Europe and New York. And because The Clearing is nothing if not the sound of a band discovering a new home, musically, emotionally, and physically. The sound is far bigger than either of the previous fingerpicking-heavy records. The AV Club aptly compared the album to Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther, and it’s got the same clean, midrange-heavy sound. They broke up, Tacular got sick and nearly died, and after getting back together, the pair built a cabin in the woods (“With a hammer and a blade/ And our four hands/ Here’s what we made”).
Yet, though they may have shacked up in the North Carolinian wilds, the music this time is content to wander in the purlieu of the village green, though more cacophonously than before. Peruse the song titles and you can get an idea of the domestic sensibility of the album: “In the Yard,” “Walk the Furrows,” “Stitch the Hem.” “Everything falls to death/ We tuck the darkness in,” goes the last chorus of the opening song, with the sort of cloying melody and monolithic dynamic build that is the stock in trade of charlatans like The Avett Brothers.
That’s not to say there aren’t a range of surprises though; this is the loudest and most far-reaching Bowerbirds album yet. “This Year” runs the gamut of the band’s dynamic range, from the fingerpicking of their older albums to a crashing, rolling chorus at the end. The clean production is even more of a relief considering what might have happened had they decided to go the way of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver (in whose April Base studio parts of the album were recorded), or any number of bands who seem to think the key to making beguilingly natural-sounding music is a shit soup of reverb, time effects, and pointless samples pretentiously invoked as “found sound.”
On the contrary, rising to the challenge of the album’s higher stakes and fidelities, the crop of boundary-pushing songs tend to experiment mostly within the realm of actual instruments while exploring a lot of new rhythmic territory for the band. This stands out especially on “Brave World,” in which Moore quotes Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” (“My name it means nothing/ My age it means less/ This country I come from/ Is called the Midwest”) before the beat finally drops three minutes in. It’s a masterful arrangement, neither too assertive about the band’s newfound muscle nor too afraid of the thick digital textures that propel the song to that point. It’s also one of the few songs on the album that resists being read in light of the couple’s reunion: “Oh brave world/ How have you changed/ I’m still unsure.”
Jackson Pollock once cursed his old teacher Benton, saying, “God damn you, I’m going to become more famous than you.” And he did.