Folk outfit Bowerbirds' third album flirts with jazz and rock without clouding the rustic simplicity that first put the band on the map.
One of the truest tests of a great band is how they handle their first recording made with significant financial backing. Such an explosion of possibilities has often spelled disaster for young musicians. Bands like Bowerbirds, whose original beauty lay in the homespun simplicity of their gentle folk songs, risk masking their talents in muddied sounds or trading in what makes them unique for a flashy but homogenizing production.
This is precisely the test Bowerbirds faced with their third album, The Clearing. Although the record is not exactly a big budget production, it's impossible to miss the signs of the band's growing resources; pianos, strings, horns, and percussion surface in the sort of lush arrangements not found on the bands' first two LPs. However, despite the unmistakable change in their approach, Bowerbirds pass the test with flying colors; their buffed up sound never obstructs the careful beauty of their melodies.
The album opens with "Tuck the Darkness In", which, despite its regrettably precious title, is a beautiful track. The production is so immediate, so intimate, that you could swear singer Phil Moore was sitting right beside you. Subtle changes -- hushed harmonies, the flipping of a beat inside out -- steer the tune safely away from monotony. As the song progresses, swelling strings and vocals take a cue from the Arcade Fire, pairing the building volume with increasingly insistent drums.
"Tuck the Darkness In" sets the tone for the rest of the album, but the songs are impressively distinct. "Stitch the Hem" hints at a perpetually shifting tango, while "Hush" melds spooky melancholy with a faint trace of Latin jazz. In the more conventional folk songs such as "Walk the Furrows" and "This Year", the fingerpicked acoustic guitar sustains a homey immediacy as dark arrangements wax and wane around it.
The album falls short on a few counts. The lyrics repeatedly go over the top with their twee-pastoral tropes ("I'm the red bird / you're the brown bird / in the brambles behind the house"), but thankfully, they are rarely intrusive. In a few instances, the band's arrangements also cross the line from melancholy to melodrama ("Tuck the Darkness In") or from quaint to kitsch ("Now We Hurry On"). Better are the moments of furtive dissonance: the click-clack of hand percussion and the voices that don't quite sync up.
Bowerbirds stand out among their folky peers because of their twin talents for melody and for rhythmic detail. Throughout The Clearing, they manage to walk that thin line between melodic sophistication and sweet, accessible pop. Although their tunes are never simple, it's easy to get caught up in their tangles. At the same time, the songs are laced with subtle rhythmic complexities, restrained syncopation, and ever-shifting time signatures. It's easy to miss this aspect of the record, however, because nothing here is contrived. The beat follows the song so organically that it's conceivable even Moore and Beth Tacular (the band's other half) are not aware when they jump from 4/4 to 3/4 time and back.
"Death Wish" marks the album's emotional climax and its boldest experiment. It begins simply -- with guitar braced by a muffled marching snare played with brushes. Slowly, the song's urgency builds in a wash of suspended cymbal, then a distant off-key violin. It reaches its breaking point with a fluttering saxophone solo, creaking in intense free-jazz pain, but only for a second. It's over as soon as it starts, leaving only wistful strings and a careful horn behind.
The standout track, however, has to be the astonishing "In the Yard". Taking over lead vocals, Tacular traces a fragile melody of breathtaking beauty, laced in Moore's warm harmonies. Then, against the acoustic tones that dominate the album, a fuzzed out guitar plays a single lead, its melodic arc falling away against Tacular's vocals. In the end, the band finally gives in to their basest pop instincts, offering a straightforward, spectacularly catchy wordless refrain. Beneath it, the fuzzy guitar again wanders through its countermelody, the sort of tune an absent-minded child might hum, half in sync with the vocal melody and half divergent. It's a stunning moment, but Bowerbirds don't linger long; as soon as the song reaches its apex, they let it fall gently away.
Even at its brightest moments, such as the appropriately-titled "Overcome with Light", the album feels dark. Each track seems to emerge out of a deep dusk, and none can free themselves entirely of the shadows. But it is in the midst of this very shroud of sorrow that The Clearing stands as a testament to hope. Even though sadness permeates the record, the songs find the courage to surge towards the light. Moore's and Tacular's voices find each other in the darkness and find comfort in harmony. In the end, The Clearing is about finding beauty and meaning in the overwhelming throes of life.
If subdued folk songs aren't your speed, this record probably won't be the one to change your mind. But if restrained, pretty music just happens to be your cup of tea, The Clearing is more than a collection of beautiful songs. It's also quietly innovative, effortlessly flirting with jazz and rock without clouding the rustic simplicity that put the band on the map five years ago. With this record, Bowerbirds have proved their skills as mature musicians. Gorgeously flawed, The Clearing is a quiet triumph.