Death to the Civilized
Sometimes, a convergence of time and place, of people and culture, can yield something utterly beautiful. Bowerbirds, who released their debut album, Hymns for a Dark Horse, on Burly Time Records on July 10th, are just that kind of bare and honest beauty. The band started when members Phil Moore and Mark Paulson, then in the group Ticonderoga, moved from Iowa east to Raleigh, North Carolina. There, Phil got together with painter Beth Tacular, and one summer, working in South Carolina, they began writing the songs that would make up the Bowerbirds’ catalog.
In 2006, they released an EP on their own called Danger at Sea, and its six songs signaled the coming of a band to be reckoned with. In the wake of the now oversaturated freak-folk movement, Bowerbirds are crafting folk songs that don’t strive to be weird the way so much modern folk does. Songs like the foot-stomper “In Our Talons” are quirky on their own terms. Phil Moore emulates the warbler’s song in irony-free homage. Moore and company are happy to let the songs do all the work, opting out of the mythology that people like Devendra Banhart seem to be crafting around them.
Now operating full-time out of Raleigh, and with the full-length release, all things Bowerbird seem to be rising and converging. Much of their material deals with the earth and the things we do to it, the good we could do for it, and the beauty to be found all around us. But before you groan and say, “Ugh, folk songs about nature,” know that to describe the band’s aim does not even come close to doing it justice. These songs are too honestly fragile, too well-wrought and beautiful for any print description to do the job right. And that they come out of Raleigh, now, seems to add something more compelling to an already brilliant album.
Raleigh is a city spreading itself thin. It is sadly becoming a place full of mega-strip malls and community developments that use words like “glen” and “estate” and “plantation” in their names. It’s getting harder and harder to find the identity of the city. It is quickly slipping away and morphing, like more and more spots in North Carolina, into some new, corporate-stamped, unrecognizable place. But to hear Hymns for a Dark Horse is to hear hope rising up from under all the bricks. What makes these songs so appealing, aside from Moore’s honeyed vocals and the spare somewhere-in-the-back-corner-of-the-room percussion, is that Moore and Paulson and Tacular sound so damn in love with what they’re doing. It’s really fantastic to put on a record and hear the giddy energy of a band doing what they love without it souring into the sound of a band that just love themselves. They’re completely happy, ecstatic really, to be doing their own thing.
The band lives in an Airstream trailer out in the bit of woods that still remain in Raleigh. They play small clubs around the area. They even play weddings. And the album’s energy is not lost when translated live. If anything, the quiet buoyancy of the songs is amplified. They don’t seem to talk much between songs, they don’t mug for the audience. They play, with all they’ve got, and they leave the stage when they’re done, giving way to audience to let the songs sink in, to leech into their bones and take hold.
It’s a great comfort to hear bands like Bowerbirds—to know that, no matter how much a city changes right in front of us, no matter how many things get bought up and homogenized, there will still be someone, somewhere, saying that the way this world is moving isn’t for them. “Death to the civilized”, Moore sings on “The Marbled Godwit”, and for a second, just a second, it sounds like he’s on his high horse. But then that chorus comes in again, and you can hear it in his voice. It doesn’t sound like he’s condemning the “civilized” when he sings, but instead galvanizing the uncivilized. His voice, no matter how sad he is about the state of things, is ever churning with hope, a hope that is constantly butting up against reality, but refusing to back down. That their sound is guileless does not render it weak, but rather bolsters it with the strength of a hard-earned honesty found all too little in modern pop music. Bowerbirds may not move Raleigh to change, or North Carolina, or anywhere else—but they just might move you.