[12 May 2009]
The Wooden Birds, the latest project of American Analog Set singer/songwriter Andrew Kenny, is a humble venture for a guy with a long resume. (He has performed with the Album Leaf, Arthur & Yu and Broken Social Scene, among many others.) The new band collects a few other seasoned musicians and departs from the Krautrock stylings of Kenny’s better-known act (which, incidentally, may be reforming), settling instead for something more traditional. Magnolia is a minor record, but it’s not effective enough for its (unassuming) ambitions.
Kenny’s back in Austin, and the leisurely Southwest scene might have rubbed off. A strong sense of American hangs over Magnolia, from the twangy-folk timbres to the vague-suburban ennui running through the album. It’s not all modern, though. The themes and imagery of the album are familiar, timeless pop emotions—love, loss, you know the drill. But it reaches as far back as those wagons crossing Westward—an image reinforced by the group’s favoured trotting rhythm. (More on that rhythm later). The obvious parallel for this album is Jose Gonzalez, as both artists build songs patiently off repetition, pick out acoustic-guitar notes carefully and defy big melodies. However, there’s something more conventional and less affecting about the Wooden Birds.
If something rescues these tunes from mediocrity, it’s a subtle harmonic sophistication partly born out of jazz (“False Alarm”, e.g., builds off a classic major seventh chord). This sophistication gives Kenny’s arrangements room to breathe. To describe these arrangements as “minimal” would almost be an overstatement. The casual, post-Brokeback “Quit You Once”—a fine example—hops along with a sketch-like, vacant heart. “Sugar”, perhaps the most appealing song on the album, strums an appropriation of the raw, Western folk sound; it’s informed by years of listening to Johnny Cash, though infinitely softer, easier.
Kenny’s not big on irony or lyrical trickery, and so these songs come off as earnest little sketches—pretty enough—but without a great deal of power or insight. “Hailey”, for example, doesn’t come good on its initial promise, a pattering, rising melodic figure; instead, it relies on the timbre of Kenny’s voice and a simple “Oh” refrain, which alone can’t quite carry it. Other stuff may be going on in the background (when he sings, on “Choke”, “I hope you choke”, you feel it must be a knowing nod to Radiohead), but it’s always just hovering, just below the surface. And though Kenny occasionally finds a flash of personality, most of the time his voice seems smooth to the point of blending away. “Hometown Fantasy”, an exception, has the slightly nasal, celebratory delivery of a Californian. When he sings, “Maybe I’ll be your hometown fantasy / But I’m not battery operated”, it constitutes one of those rare flashes.
However, it’s a bit too little, too late. The hopping, horse-beat rhythm that adorns many of the songs on Magnolia quickly becomes predictable, and besides, compared to either Bon Iver or Phosphorescent, the Wooden Birds sound, well, slightly wooden. Emotion can be found here, but it doesn’t hit hard.