Brown Bird: Fits of Reason

[26 June 2013]

By Chris Conaton

On May 10, Brown Bird cut their show in Houston short to take singer/guitarist Dave Lamb to the hospital. Dave, it turned out, was severely anemic, with a hemoglobin count at 3.4. An average person’s hemoglobin count is around 14. Dave spent a couple of weeks in the hospital in Houston before being allowed to return home to Rhode Island. A few more weeks of tests and the results are in. Sadly, Dave has been diagnosed with leukemia and Brown Bird is on hiatus until further notice while he gets treatment. Since Brown Bird is a working band with a low profile and no regular health insurance, the band has set up a donation page. So far, fans have donated almost $60,000 with the fundraiser set to close on June 16, enough to allow Dave to set up medical insurance and keep him and fellow band member MorganEve Swain solvent while the band isn’t working.

Hopefully everything will turn out for Dave, but for now there isn’t much else fans of the band can do besides make donations and wait for further news. In the meantime, the band’s recently released third album, Fits of Reason, is a further exploration of Brown Bird’s early 20th century folk sound. For a folk duo, the group has a big sound. Part of this is due to the huge bottom end from Swain’s upright bass, but Lamb’s hollow-body electric guitar also sounds like an instrument that fills the room. Add to this the fact that Lamb not only sings but uses both of his feet to play percussion, and you have two musicians doing the jobs of three or four. Even though he sits while performing, Lamb works harder than the vast majority of rock music frontmen.

Fits of Reason begins with staccato, minor key guitar arpeggios, counterpointed with bass drum, wood block, and slow bass notes. This intro is left behind quickly as “Seven Hells” jumps into Brown Bird’s version of a full-on rocker, which features full-on harmonizing from Lamb and Swain and syncopated guitar with basic but heavy distortion. The rhythm finds bass drum on the downbeat and shifts between woodblock and tambourine on the upbeat, giving the whole song a feel reminiscent of a gypsy dance. It’s a strong, distinctive start to the album, so naturally Brown Bird immediately shifts gears with “Nine Eyes”. This song sounds like a trip to the desert, complete with hand drums and the duo harmonizing on the fourth instead of the more traditional third or fifth. Third song “Bow for Blade” changes things up again, with a 1920’s jazz feel featuring a lot of violin. The track finds Swain taking lead vocals and harmonizing with herself, and is jaunty with a strong backbeat.

The rest of the album is equally impressive. Brown Bird don’t fit in very well with the folk scene or the new Americana movement because the sounds they explore, while not unfamiliar, are definitely idiosyncratic. They don’t eschew percussion like many string bands, but Lamb’s limited palette of bass drum, wood block, and tambourine sounds significantly different than the usual snare and hi-hat cymbal dominated beats of rock drummers. Their commitment to playing in minor keys isn’t necessarily strange, but Brown Bird are also fond of more unusual tonalities like double harmonic scales, which gives their songs that aforementioned gypsy and desert feelings.

Despite having a distinctive overall sound, Lamb and Swain don’t get stuck in one place. Thus, the swirling instrumental “Iblis” features circular, fugue-style interplay between the guitar and violin as the two instruments alternately crash against and complement each other for three and a half minutes. Then, right afterwards, “Wayward Daughter” is completely different, starting slow, spare, and creepy, with vocal harmonies that lock in. Eventually, the song picks up into a similar uptempo swirl, but as the track swings into its climax, the duo bring in glockenspiel and bowed bass for another unique sound. “Hitchens” finds Swain using the high end of her bass and a guitar/bass riff that recalls a creepy folk version of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.

It’s telling that acoustic guitar-driven “Abednego”, the only song that sounds like folk music from the last 50 years, only lasts for 90 seconds. The only other instance of acoustic guitar on Fits of Reason is on the record-closing “Caves”, and features another harmonized fugue, this time with three different acoustic guitars piling on top of each other. Lyrically, Brown Bird’s are often concerned with topics like murder, betrayal, and sin in general. This fits in well with the general feel of their music, to the point where a pretty ballad like “Abednego” is the true outlier on an album full of strange, idiosyncratic songs. Fits of Reason is the kind of album that refines a band’s sound to the point where it can reach a broader audience. It’s a shame that Dave Lamb’s illness is going to keep them from really promoting it like they should. Good luck and get well soon, Dave.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/172353-brown-bird-fits-of-reason/