Carl Broemel: All Birds Say

[21 November 2010]

By Ryan Reed

Don’t bother trying to jog to this album.  I tried recently, and instead of burning calories, I ended up sitting on a bench, whittling, and petting stray dogs.  As I discovered, All Birds Say, the second solo album from My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel, is the very definition of laidback.  The vibe is contagious. 

Broemel made his My Morning Jacket debut on 2005’s Z, one of the decade’s most critically lauded albums. It just so happened to find the band completely re-thinking their wide-eyed, Southern rock sound, exploring funk and space-rock, experimenting with previously unthinkable frills like programmed drum beats and synths.  They even recorded Andrew Bird whistling on a track.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that My Morning Jacket suddenly got a lot more musically eclectic and…well…interesting when Broemel joined, but one listen to All Birds Say only solidifies the correlation.  This is a confident, finely crafted collection of songs that feels like a natural, albeit slightly more reflective, extension from Broemel’s main gig.

Not since the heydays of soft-rock kings like James Taylor and Seals & Crofts has an artist shown such mastery of charming, reflective songcraft.  The ragged edges of My Morning Jacket’s sound (gnarly distorted guitars, powerhouse drumming) have been sanded away.  Broemel’s sweet, assured tenor sports a cruise ship-load of nuance and texture, gently floating atop a constant instrumental bed of fingerpicked acoustics and quietly brushed drums.  From a technical standpoint, his vocal delivery is obviously akin to My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James (or Yim Yames, depending on which day, or band, it is) at his folkiest, resting comfortably in his middle register, adopting country twang and bluesy drawl when it suits a particular track.  But in terms of catharsis, this is miles away from the gut-wrenching, emotional outpour James demonstrates on the most rousing My Morning Jacket material.

That band’s fans will recognize the crystal drops of Broemel’s pedal steel guitar, but few could have predicted the amount of breezy instrumental detail tucked away in these tunes, or the grace with which Broemel uses these layers to enhance his simple laments on love, frustration, and greed.  When muted trumpets pepper the lush, harmony-drenched singalong “Different People”, playing call-and-response with the main vocal melody, the result sounds simultaneously tossed-off and masterfully organized.  “There’s a lotta different kinda people in the world”, Broemel sings in the chorus, running though various religions and ideologies (“There’s the Krishnas and the Catholics, Agnostics and the Baptists”) in a free-associative calm, channeling a less sarcastic Randy Newman leading a circle of hand-holding kiddies through a Sunday school romp.

The intro to “In the Garden”, with its electric reverb shimmer, is the closest All Birds Say gets to a My Morning Jacket level of majesty, but the group-charged sonics quickly fade, replaced by closely knit vocal harmonies and a buzzing oboe.  In the hands of his bandmates, this could have turned into a sprawling, winding barnburner. Instead, it’s a hushed, reflective highlight on an album chock-full of them.  “Questions” could be the sexiest track of the year. Its glowing layers of wurlitzer, pedal steel, and jazzy electric guitar wind around the chorus come-on, “You ask a lotta questions / For someone who knows”.

We already knew Broemel could play.  The last two My Morning Jacket albums (probably the band’s best albums) have proved that much.  As All Birds Say proves, Broemel has one hell of a voice, too—both as a literal singer and as a songwriter.  His songs are full of charm, warmth, and spirited performances, even if they aren’t particularly lively. That’s the key.  Don’t let the sleepy structures scare you off.  As Broemel wisely states during “Questions”, “It takes a lot of patience to be patient”. 

For now, he’s still “that guy from My Morning Jacket”.  But, hell, if Broemel is patient, maybe his solo work will earn him some praise on his own merits.  Judging by the chilled-out, self-assured vibe of All Birds Say, I don’t think he’s too worried about it. Listen to just one track from All Birds Say, and before long, you’ll be under its spell, wondering where the last 40 minutes of your life went. It’s the smoothest album of the year.

Just remember what I said about the jogging.

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