The, yes, partially Chicago-based duo behind Birds of Chicago have a relaxed way with rootsy Americana: some of this, such as the opening track “Trampoline”, could pass for mid-‘70s Eagles, and other bits, such as singer JT Nero’s “Cannonball”, could have beamed in from Rod Stewart’s early ‘70s output, scratchy voice and all. Meanwhile, his cohort, the Vancouver-based Allison Russell, could almost pass for Emmylou Harris from roughly the same period on stunning, towering tracks such as “Before She Goes”, and that’s not when she’s letting her Cajun loose on “San Souci”. Clearly, this duo have an affinity for ‘70s soft rock, but in a good way, and the pair offers a smooth, country-bluegrass sound that is nice to lie back and listen to, going down as well as a cold beer on a hot, summers day.
The slight problem with Birds of Chicago, as a duo, is that Russell has the much more commanding voice of the two, and sings slightly more earnest material. With Nero, alas, Rome goes up in flames as we get trite lyrics and lazy rhymes such as the following from “Moonglow Tapeworm”: “Yeah, I got that moonglow / Yeah, I got that tapeworm / And my stomach burns / From the [Author’s note: ... wait for it ... ] tapeworm.” You don’t say? Coming directly after such a stunning show-stopper as “Before She Goes”, you have to wonder if this paring is about as natural as a Blue Jay and an Oriole becoming fast friends. The strength of the material is clearly lopsided here, which is a bit unfortunate. Had the powers of the vocalists and songwriters been a bit more easily matched, Birds of Chicago would have been as pleasurable as hearing something as familiar and pleasant on the ears as “Take It Easy” on the radio for the umpteenth time. Still, this is pretty nice, particularly when Russell steps up to the mic and into the well-deserved spotlight – particularly on album highlight “Come Morning”, which is about as angelic as they come.