Last summer I saw Breathe Owl Breathe live at a McMenamin’s Pub in Bend, Oregon. Even though they were playing a small venue in a small town hundreds of miles from their native Michigan, they seemed totally at home. Lead singer Micah Middaugh told hilarious, incoherent, rambling stories; cellist Andrea Moreno-Beals impersonated (if I remember correctly) a tiger. All three band members wore capes. The audience was good-sized and diverse: shy indie kids, couples with children, grandparents. All told, Breathe Owl Breathe played for three hours, and we were entranced. We sang and clapped along at the band’s direction to songs we had never heard before; at one point in the evening, every kid in the house under 12 years old was seated in a semicircle at the band’s feet.
That’s the kind of generous stage presence Breathe Owl Breathe have. They’ve gathered a larger following than you’d expect given their idiosyncratic, niche-y folk. Middaugh kind of sounds like Bill Callahan, and he kind of writes like him too — elusive little story-songs that follow their own unpredictable logic. It’s good stuff, but not something you’d expect to be crowd-pleasing. The band’s strength on stage is that, through contagious energy and audience participation, they invite even the most uninitiated listener into their strange little world. It’s a refreshing reminder that even the most out-there music can be accessible when a performer crosses the boundary and connects with the audience.
On their first two records and one EP, Breathe Owl Breathe weren’t quite able to duplicate that energy. Though good, those records are more austere and distant; their riches are for those who dig pretty deep. One can hardly blame a band who’s toured Alaska for prioritizing their live show over their records. But their latest album, Magic Central, is their first for a label, Portland’s Home Tapes, and it’s clear that the band is shooting for a more accessible recorded sound.
In short, they totally nail it. They’ve reshuffled and tightened their sound and produced something catchy, engaging, and unique. The two catchiest tunes are also the best: “Dragon”, which starts with one of Middaugh’s trademark rambling introductions, soon launches into a snaky cello groove over which Middaugh relates the story of a princess and a dragon (!) who are pen pals. This, naturally, leads into a call-and-response between Middaugh and Beals (dragon and princess, respectively) in the album’s strongest vocal hook: “How do you stop loving someone?” It’s a great example of one of Middaugh’s strengths as a songwriter. As the song shifted gears from the bizarre and specific to the vulnerable and universal I found myself strongly and unexpectedly identifying with the dragon. “Swimming”, on the other hand, is all universal, as Middaugh, Beals, and drummer Trevor Hobbs sing “I wish I was swimmin'” over and over again in joyful, repetitive harmony. Both “Dragon” and “Swimming” are endlessly replayable, not to mention mix-able, which hopefully bodes well for Magic Central’s reception.
The rest of the album is less immediate, but no less good. Each part of the trio makes a lot out of a little, giving the album a conversational feel. Still, if Breathe Owl Breathe have an MVP, it’s Beals. She provides nearly every hook on the album, from the cello flourishes on “Dogwalkers of the New Age” to the “bom-bom-bom”s of “Board Games”. Her more prominent role is a big part of Magic Central’s accessibility. Just when Middaugh’s songwriting starts to meander, Beals is usually there to steal the focus.
After numerous listens, Magic Central starts to reveal some of its best secrets, like the lovely vocal interplay on “House of Gold” and the ambient racket in the coda of “Across the Loch”. The last and best secrets here, though, are Middaugh’s. Take, for instance, his elliptical poetry in “Dogwalkers of the New Age”: “This city is alive / It blinks its eyes / When you turn on and off your lights”. Lovely moments like that somehow don’t contrast with the strange ones — I’m unsurprised when a song about parrots biting each other turns into a rumination on mortality and loss.
If this is all starting to sound too quirky, suspend your disbelief. For years, fans have watched Breathe Owl Breathe make the far-out hit very close to home. On Magic Central, though they take some winding backroads, they always meet us in the same, entirely human place.