One of the more charming debuts of 2007, Bowerbirds’ Hymns For a Dark Horse wasted no time in distancing itself from the current freak-folk movement to which it would inevitably be compared. Comprised of songs that unabashedly displayed a major preoccupation with themes of nature, written by a couple who live in an Airstream trailer in North Carolina, it was an utterly winsome slice of rustic music and poeticism. Singer/guitarist Phil Moore and accordionist Beth Tacular carried on with such sincerity that any notion of these kids being just another band of Merge Records-pandering indie hipsters went right out the window within seconds of hearing them. Instead of merely following the leads of Devendra Banhart and Sam Beam, this was the sound of a band weaned on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, seemingly untarnished by any modern trappings whatsoever. Recorded using more primitive methods, “In Our Talons” could have easily passed for a field recording from the 1920s. It was timeless music from a band that seemed to magically appear from another era.
In the wake of Dead Ocean’s 2008 re-release of Hymns For a Dark Horse, which was appended by a pair of new tracks featuring the band’s newest member, drummer/bassist Mark Paulson, one question that lingered was just how much Bowerbirds’ heightened stature in the indie community would affect the follow-up. Not surprisingly, what we hear on Upper Air isn’t much of a stylistic stretch from the previous album. But typical of this trio’s disarming subtlety, as we let this 10-track record sink in, the more our comfort level increases, and the more we start to hear hints of more adventurous, ambitious things to come from the trio.
“One morning you wake to find you are shackled to your bed and bound and gagged,” Moore gently croons on the opening track, “House of Diamonds”. It’s not exactly the sunniest of images to start an album off with, but he and Tacular quickly look on the bright side once the lilting chorus kicks in. Their anti-consumerist rhetoric is gracefully stated, “You are free from the greed of your own culture…from the lust for the luster of the diamond houses in the city’s cluster.” More significantly, though, there’s a brazen romanticism that permeates the entire record. The unapologetically rosy-eyed “Teeth” follows suit with the declaration, “Oh resilient life, you are strong and sure without me / You are boldly dismantling.” Tacular’s gentle accordion hook in the song helps strip the lyrics of any pretentiousness. “Northern Lights”, meanwhile, dares to approach the sweetness of early-‘70s Neil Young at his most intimate. The gentle melody and simple arrangement echo Harvest. Moore’s lyrics eschew florid imagery for direct, loving sentiment (“All I want is your eyes in the morning as we wake”), and the effect is devastating.
For all of Upper Air‘s likeable gentleness, the album is actually at its best when the threesome picks up the pace and shows us that they can be a bracing-sounding band. “Silver Clouds” gracefully builds steam, culminating in a beautiful, thrumming coda during its final quarter. “Beneath Your Tree” is even more insistent, Paulson’s deeply-mixed kick and snare beats propelling the duet between Moore and Tacular. The winsome chorus of “Ghost Life” soars, reminiscent of Akron/Family or even Arcade Fire, while the lovely “Chimes On” is an upbeat response to “Northern Lights”.
For a band that won us over with its seemingly primitive mindset, it’s interesting to note just how immaculately recorded Upper Air is. However, it’s not so much polished as minutely refined. The higher-fidelity recording enhances the band’s intimate feel even more than ever. The finest examples are the sublime “Bright Future” and album highlight “Crooked Lust”, which centers on Moore’s gently plucked, mellifluous acoustic guitar. It might be a predictable record, but it’s an entrancing listen, an album that might coax Bowerbirds towards even bolder musical territory on their third release.