Bird Show Untitled

[Kranky; 2008]

Styles:  electronic-assisted-almost-ambient-folk
Others: Kemialliset Ystävät, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Jackie-O Motherfucker

On his third release as Bird Show, multi-instrumentalist Ben Vida constructs an album that sounds “experimental” in the most literal sense of the word. It’s not that it breaks any particularly new sonic ground or delves into tropes of what’s currently (and questionably) labeled “experimental” -- the album is almost entirely traditionally tonal, rhythmic, and has melodies to spare, even if they’re often of the droning and repetitive variety.

Rather, as the cover art and literalist track titles attest, this is an album that takes joy in simply experimenting with the combination of obscure, arcane instruments. Vida assembles a fairly impressive array of instruments to employ to this end, including pan pipes, elephant bells, Vietnamese jaw harp, qraqeb, zither, and a wealth of synthesizers, alongside a variety of traditional percussion instruments. These instruments are employed in the service of tracks that split the divide between droning and melodic, often underpinned by drum circle percussion. It remains just at the brink of ambient, with enough melody and rhythm to keep it from crossing that border.

The general mood is one of vague meditative awe, delivered with unfailing restraint. Although this restraint allows for a sustained, smooth surface of rustic ambience, it’s also what keeps the audience from taking as much joy in Vida’s little experiments as I imagine him taking, leaving the impression that the album is fully content to amuse itself in its own musical corner without inviting the listener too. With melodies that aren’t fully developed enough to engage on their own and little textural shifting within a given song, once the initial pleasure of hearing these unusual instruments made to play folk drone wears off, there’s not much to ride on.

Luckily, a number of the tracks feature full-on vocals and lyrics, and though they hang in the same region of almost-drone, almost-song, it’s often these vocals that provide the auditory entrance point the album otherwise lacks. There’s something quietly affecting about the way a tired little folk song emerges from the ether of flutes during closing track “Wood Flute, Berimbau, Mibra, and Voice.” It’s moments like this that suggest that Vida might benefit from anchoring his experiments in texture to something, even if it’s just a simple folk tune -- that is, if he doesn't decide to veer off into more overtly experimental realms for future releases.

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