Bowerbirds Upper Air

[Dead Oceans; 2009]

Styles: indie folk
Others: Andrew Bird, Bon Iver

Bowerbirds’ debut, 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse, was both a naturalistic paean to the Earth and a chastisement to those who don’t respect it. If their lyrics and sparse instrumentation weren’t convincing enough, their Walden-esque views were corroborated by the fact that the songwriting duo of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular live in an Airstream trailer in the woods of North Carolina, posting MySpace blogs pleading for the adoption of endangered puppies. Dark Horse was refreshing for me at first, but, aside from several standout tracks, it didn't really hold up with repeated listens.

My initial listens to Upper Air didn't fare so well either -- at least until I started concentrating on the lyrics. Delivered through lilting, carefree melodies, Moore’s words are easy to overlook: he doesn’t always enunciate (it took me a while to decipher “A nice young man” from "House of Diamonds"), and his voice is already so pleasant that one could find pleasure purely in its timbre. But ignoring Moore’s message is doing a great disservice to Upper Air. In just a few lines, opener “House of Diamonds” manages to convey the group’s espousal of anti-materialism more efficiently than the whole of Hymns for a Dark Horse did: “You are free from the greed of your culture/ You are free from the lust for the lustre/ Of the diamond houses in the city’s cluster/ From your own ego, from your own blunder.”

While a good deal of the album conveys reverence to nature through idyllic imagery (leaves, trees, oceans, sky, etc.), Moore here also delves into personal relationships in a way unprecedented for the group. On songs like “Beneath Your Tree,” we see his devotion to a lover (“I could bleed, bleed, bleed, for days/ But my heart would still beat for you, dear”), while album standout “Northern Lights” finds the singer distinguishing between needing and wanting in a simple but affecting manner (“And I do need the wind across my pale face/ And I do need the ferns to unfurl in the spring/… But all I want is your eyes/ In the morning/ For a short while”). He’s earnest and often romantic, but never cloyingly so.

Things are kept pretty minimal throughout. The most prominent sounds are Moore’s voice and his shambling acoustic guitar, strummed on top of spare percussion, while Wes Phillips’ upright bass contributions delightfully bolster a few tracks and Beth Tacular's vocals are heard on nearly every song. But while the rustic instrumentation is certainly appropriate, the audio fidelity is curiously pristine -- something I find difficult to reconcile with the band’s philosophy -- and the limited musical variety is ultimately detrimental. Bowerbirds continue to show great potential, with some truly beautiful music along the way, but Upper Air’s most interesting tracks ("Bright Future" and "Crooked Lust") are the ones that deviate from their core sound. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate.

1. House of Diamonds
2. Teeth
3. Silver Clouds
4. Beneath Your Tree
5. Ghost Life
6. Northern Lights
7. Chimes
8. Bright Future
9. Crooked Lust
10. This Day

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