Brown Bird's final album finds them expanding their sound without sacrificing their personality. And using drums played with hands, not just foot pedals.
While Brown Bird were touring in support of their 2013 record, Fits of Reason, the duo were forced to cut short a concert in Houston, Texas, in order to take frontman Dave Lamb to the hospital. He was diagnosed with severe anemia, which turned out to be a side effect of leukemia. Lamb and his partner, MorganEve Swain, returned home to Rhode Island for treatment, but Lamb ended up passing away on April 5, 2014, only 11 months after that Houston concert. The band went through several different incarnations as a trio before solidifying as a duo in the late 00’s, but Lamb was always the man in charge. He was the primary songwriter, singer, guitarist, and percussionist, and the band ended with his passing.
But despite never getting to play another live show, Lamb and Swain continued to work on music in the midst of his treatment, and Axis Mundi collects those songs into a final album. Musings on death and defiance in the face of death recur throughout the record, but those topics were a regular feature of Lamb’s songs before cancer, so nothing here is out of character for the band. Still, the opening track, “Focus”, seems to take the topic head-on. A quiet electric guitar riff, accompanied by minimal violin and bass, puts the spotlight directly on Lamb’s voice and lyrics. “Tethered to the cure / I focus on the pain / Transformation comes / Tempered by the flame / And if this flesh should fail / Devour me from within / May then my soul prevail / Free to roam again.” Even for Brown Bird, this is a bit heavy, and the album’s penultimate song, Swain’s “Tortured Boy”, is equally wrenching. A simple, upbeat guitar rhythm gives the song a brighter feel than most of the band’s material, but it is just as sparely arranged as “Focus”, with a couple other noodling guitars providing the only accompaniment to the main guitar. Swain says she wrote the song in the early days of their relationship, but lines like “I don’t want to sleep / In case you have to go” and “I know your love is true / Your hurtful days are through”, take on a whole different context in light of his death.
Fortunately, the rest of the album isn’t quite as painful to hear. Second track “Adolescence”, with a smoky lead vocal from Swain and a characteristically spare and dark guitar lead, sounds like many other Brown Bird songs. For about 10 seconds. Then a drumbeat comes in, obviously played by hands, and at 45 seconds, the percussion becomes a full-on drumset accompaniment. This is a big change for the duo, which previously kept their studio beats simple enough for Lamb to work with foot pedals while simultaneously playing guitar and singing. Despite Swain’s official statement that these songs were intended to be played on tour once Lamb recovered, it seems Lamb himself decided not to worry about the logistics of performing these songs live.
That lack of concern for logistics leads to a general beefing up of Brown Bird’s sound. Most of the songs still retain the early 20th century folk vibe spiced with modal and Middle Eastern tonalities, but the presence of drums gives the songs a rhythmic and sonic variety that their earlier releases sometimes lacked. The instrumental “Aloha Senor Malo” is a perfect example. Lamb uses his hollow body electric guitar to give the song a surf-rock motif that wouldn’t have sounded right without the backing drumset. Then he switches it up for a more familiar Brown Bird sound before sliding back to the surf-rock style. It’s an impressive change of pace for the band. Elsewhere, “Pale and Paralyzed” is essentially a straightforward rock track, complete with chugging verses and noisy chorus. Rather than turn up the distortion on the guitar for the chorus, though, Swain instead takes out her bow and plays loud arco bass to increase the volume. The record’s other instrumental, the subdued “Shadrach”, takes another tack, emphasizing the Mediterranean influences with hand drums. On “Sackcloth and Ash”, the drums essentially take center stage, driving the song rhythmically throughout and giving the song a hard rock feel.
The record ends briefly and poignantly, with the 46-second “Avalon”, which sounds like Lamb’s final musical farewell to Swain. It closes with the words, “You’re a huntress, a healer, a holder of hands / And your heart is the Avalon I seek for my end.” Lamb and Swain had a real chemistry together that was evident over the course of their partnership. And with Axis Mundi they found a way to start expanding their sound without sacrificing the band’s basic personality. This is a very strong album that feels like a natural step forward for the band, and it’s a damn shame that it will have to serve as their closing statement instead.