Following the departure of frontman Craig Tilley after 2009’s Uncanny Valley, Birds of Avalon co-leaders and husband-and-wife duo Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar seem to find themselves facing several questions of identity on their eponymous third album, recorded way back in January 2009, but only now seeing the light of day. Namely, are Birds of Avalon twin guitar attack ‘70s rock revivalists, or are they spaced-out psych rockers? Or, put another way, are they a roll-down-the-windows-and-floor-the-Camaro-band or a plop-on-the-headphones-and-collapse-into-a-beanbag-chair band? Their choice of tourmates doesn’t clear up matters—they’ve shared stages with everyone from the Raconteurs and Mudhoney to the Flaming Lips and Black Mountain. While the band is certainly versatile, on Birds of Avalon, they try to have it both ways and the result is less than the sum of its parts.
Siler and Kumar, formerly of the decidedly hard-rock-leaning (and much missed) Cherry Valence, have teamed up once again with Tarheel producer/legend Mitch Easter, in a move that would seem to favor tight, hooky songs, and for the first half of Birds of Avalon that’s exactly what the band delivers (indeed, Side A sounds like the beefier cousin of Easter’s terrific 2007 solo offering Dynamico). “Golden Nose”‘s snaky guitar lead feels like a direct descendant of Clinton-era North Carolina indie rock, and “Invasion” is as close as anyone this side of the Drive-by Truckers gets to Thin Lizzy these days. It’s a shame that actually knowing how to play a guitar loudly and with a sense of showmanship—a talent which both Siler and Kumar possess in spades—tags one as a ‘70s revivalist, but the band, at their best moments on Birds of Avalon, are hardly moribund cryptkeepers worshipping at the altar of Phil Lynott; they’re honoring what rock and roll is capable of accomplishing.
Of course, Birds of Avalon have always had a psych/prog streak, dating back to their ‘07 debut, Bazaar Bazaar, and the band gets derailed as they chase this second muse. “Road to Oslo” is an abrupt left turn after a handful of rockers, exploring jazz and prog, and not unafraid to meander. “& Moonbeams” [sic] is as hazy as its title suggests, and with its loose jam and oblique lyrics, feels like no one so much as (of all bands) Phish. Two instrumentals—the Middle Eastern-tinged “Diggi Palace” and the lighter “Particle Drag”—careen the band further into its own headspace, even as the tunes are interleaved with the tight, angular “Pim Pom” and “Spiders on the Line”, the closest the Birds of Avalon get to pop on this record. Needless to say, this is an oddly paced album, as the band’s two sides fight for supremacy.
For better or worse, neither side of the band can claim victory on Birds of Avalon. It’s funny, then, that a third battle ends up providing the closest thing to a definitive statement on this record: guitars vs. lyrics. Siler and Kumar’s voices sound warm together, thought it’s not always clear—sonically or conceptually—what they are singing, and really, as singers, they’re great guitarists. But two key lines in the closing “Shadowy End” sum up where the band’s mind is these days: “I can’t discern the ditch from the road” and “If you keep no course but your own, you learn your lessons as the wind blows”. Soaring is all well and good, but let’s hope the Birds of Avalon alight soon.