Music

Bowerbirds: Upper Air

Bowerbirds' approach hasn't changed much at all on their second album, but we're not complaining.


Bowerbirds

Upper Air

Label: Dead Oceans
US Release Date: 2009-07-07
UK Release Date: 2009-07-06
Artist Website
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

One of the more charming debuts of 2007, Bowerbirds' Hymns For a Dark Horse wasted no time in distancing itself from the current freak-folk movement to which it would inevitably be compared. Comprised of songs that unabashedly displayed a major preoccupation with themes of nature, written by a couple who live in an Airstream trailer in North Carolina, it was an utterly winsome slice of rustic music and poeticism. Singer/guitarist Phil Moore and accordionist Beth Tacular carried on with such sincerity that any notion of these kids being just another band of Merge Records-pandering indie hipsters went right out the window within seconds of hearing them. Instead of merely following the leads of Devendra Banhart and Sam Beam, this was the sound of a band weaned on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, seemingly untarnished by any modern trappings whatsoever. Recorded using more primitive methods, "In Our Talons" could have easily passed for a field recording from the 1920s. It was timeless music from a band that seemed to magically appear from another era.

In the wake of Dead Ocean's 2008 re-release of Hymns For a Dark Horse, which was appended by a pair of new tracks featuring the band's newest member, drummer/bassist Mark Paulson, one question that lingered was just how much Bowerbirds' heightened stature in the indie community would affect the follow-up. Not surprisingly, what we hear on Upper Air isn't much of a stylistic stretch from the previous album. But typical of this trio's disarming subtlety, as we let this 10-track record sink in, the more our comfort level increases, and the more we start to hear hints of more adventurous, ambitious things to come from the trio.

"One morning you wake to find you are shackled to your bed and bound and gagged," Moore gently croons on the opening track, "House of Diamonds". It's not exactly the sunniest of images to start an album off with, but he and Tacular quickly look on the bright side once the lilting chorus kicks in. Their anti-consumerist rhetoric is gracefully stated, "You are free from the greed of your own culture…from the lust for the luster of the diamond houses in the city's cluster." More significantly, though, there's a brazen romanticism that permeates the entire record. The unapologetically rosy-eyed "Teeth" follows suit with the declaration, "Oh resilient life, you are strong and sure without me / You are boldly dismantling." Tacular's gentle accordion hook in the song helps strip the lyrics of any pretentiousness. "Northern Lights", meanwhile, dares to approach the sweetness of early-'70s Neil Young at his most intimate. The gentle melody and simple arrangement echo Harvest. Moore's lyrics eschew florid imagery for direct, loving sentiment ("All I want is your eyes in the morning as we wake"), and the effect is devastating.

For all of Upper Air's likeable gentleness, the album is actually at its best when the threesome picks up the pace and shows us that they can be a bracing-sounding band. "Silver Clouds" gracefully builds steam, culminating in a beautiful, thrumming coda during its final quarter. "Beneath Your Tree" is even more insistent, Paulson's deeply-mixed kick and snare beats propelling the duet between Moore and Tacular. The winsome chorus of "Ghost Life" soars, reminiscent of Akron/Family or even Arcade Fire, while the lovely "Chimes On" is an upbeat response to "Northern Lights".

For a band that won us over with its seemingly primitive mindset, it's interesting to note just how immaculately recorded Upper Air is. However, it's not so much polished as minutely refined. The higher-fidelity recording enhances the band's intimate feel even more than ever. The finest examples are the sublime "Bright Future" and album highlight "Crooked Lust", which centers on Moore's gently plucked, mellifluous acoustic guitar. It might be a predictable record, but it's an entrancing listen, an album that might coax Bowerbirds towards even bolder musical territory on their third release.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image