Bird Streets’ self-titled 2018 debut was an unassuming revelation: a collection of hummable, deftly crafted and performed guitar-based indie-pop tunes whose uniformly high quality and self-assurance throughout an entire album are rare nowadays, especially from new bands.
Yet it was no surprise. Bird Streets may have been a debut, but one of the band’s members (and the album’s producer) was Jason Falkner, who has been a protean pop force since breaking through as a barely-legal guitar prodigy on Jellyfish’s Bellybutton (1990). Apart from his unvaryingly excellent one-man-band solo albums, Falkner has made his career, and perhaps even a cult legend (if not quite a household name for himself), as the secret ingredient in other musicians’ better stuff. He has worked with Paul McCartney, Beck, Noel Gallagher, Brendan Benson, and many others on both sides of the Atlantic. Go check out, for example, the Belgian outfit Soulwax’s all but forgotten but smoking Much Against Everyone’s Advice (2000). Falkner is all over that giant killer of a record. To borrow the old BASF slogan: Falkner doesn’t make a lot of the albums you buy. He makes a lot of the albums you buy better.
The rub here is that Bird Streets isn’t Falkner’s band. It’s the DBA moniker of John Brodeur, a New York-based singer-songwriter-guitarist with solid pro credentials that outweigh his notoriety. Brodeur importuned Falkner, whom he had long admired, to work with him on the Bird Streets debut. But Falkner is absent from Bird Streets’ recently released follow-up, Lagoon, which Brodeur, a more than capable force of his own, spent three years writing and recording.
Instead, Brodeur is supported by a virtual who’s-who of semi-pop luminaries, including on one track, the white queen herself, Aimee Mann, along with her former collaborator Buddy Judge. Three songs on Lagoon were produced by Mann’s-best-friend Michael Lockwood, who is the founder just a hot minute ago of Sparkle Plenty, the label that released Lagoon, and he is almost certainly the reason that Mann’s bandmate Patrick Warren appears in the album credits, too. (It’s a mild surprise not to find Jon Brion’s name here.)
Brodeur’s current bench runs deeper still. Half of Lagoon’s tracks were recorded and produced by Wilco’s Pat Sansone in Memphis, which naturally means that Big Star legend Jody Stephens walked into Ardent Studios and played drums. The relative unknowns at the board are Zach Jones and Oscar Albis Rodriguez. That duo is based in Brodeur’s New York City home, where they coproduced Lagoon‘s remaining three tracks—including two of the best ones. Take “Ambulance”, the rockingest song on the album, which lurches along in infectious 6/4 time and then somehow turns grunge in the refrain (“It’s coming around again / You’re fucking it up again”) before going out in a sweet little coda of fainting keyboard. Somehow it holds together.
In other words, the 1990s are alive and well on Lagoon, and so is Brodeur, despite Jason Falkner’s absence. Although you can still hear Falkner’s irreverent influence in some of Brodeur’s cooler chord changes, the aesthetic sensibility here is the urbane, soundtrack-ready, slightly melancholic popcraft ushered into the world by Club Largo a quarter-century ago. It’s a narrow but rich subgenre that ranges from, let’s say, Matthew Sweet to Matthew Caws (of nada Surf). The latter’s voice sounds a lot like Brodeur’s, in fact, and Lagoon’s yearning album-closer “Go Free” is a virtual Nada Surf soundalike in the very best of ways—a compliment to both acts.
Where Bird Streets’ debut had the taut, guitar-driven sonic focus of Brodeur and Falkner working quickly and intuitively in the studio, Lagoon’s sound is less concise and angular, more spacious and exploratory, as you might expect of an album recorded in five different cities, by three different producers, over three pandemic-tossed years. Consequently, we get pedal steel guitar here, horn sections and string arrangements there, and mellotron and sitar where you little expect them. Lagoon is rich with plenteous and adroitly deployed touches of inventive instrumentation and/or arranging, depending on who’s producing any given track and, perhaps, what players could be rounded up for studio sessions—some of those sessions without Brodeur even present at all, due to the pandemic.
That Lagoon doesn’t sound slack, muddy, or diffuse testifies to the quality of Brodeur’s writing skills and the ease with which he put his music in the hands of his various producers. “I wanted to allow myself to just be a songwriter for once, rather than sticking my nose into every part of the process,” he told an interviewer. “I aimed to let the producers shape the sound.”
That means his compositions and lyrics have to hold their shape, and they do. Brodeur wrote a number of Lagoon’s songs in response to his separation from his wife, and the album’s depressive mood evokes its creative period of marital breakup and pandemic lockdown. It is, unsurprisingly, a comparatively downhearted companion to Bird Streets’ debut, which from its opening couplet—“Let’s drink a toast, my friends / To new beginnings and bitter ends”—had a “we’re all in this mess we’re making together” sociability to it, finding shards of irony and solace among Brodeur’s archaeology of regret. The wink, for example, in that line about raising a glass was that Brodeur is a recovering alcoholic.
Nonetheless, despite his apparent (or in any case hoped-for) sobriety, Lagoon only needs three songs to get to the one about getting high much too often and to no good effect (“Burnout”). A sad-drunk song (“Disappearing Act”) arrives later in the cycle. In addition to self-medication, there are tall pours of the addict’s self-recrimination. One can only hope that Brodeur isn’t guilty of treating his ex as badly as the characters in his songs wish they hadn’t; otherwise, the pity his appealingly plaintive voice can’t help but elicit should go to the woman he hurt instead.
Throughout Lagoon, Brodeur’s repeated apologies for his caddishness and abulia can, at times, get a little hard to take, although that is not exactly because the content itself grates; pop and rock—and for that matter, the entire history of civilization—have always been driven, lamentably, by the dirty deeds of no-good men who can’t or won’t change their misbehavior, even those who are as “introspective and confessional” as Brodeur accurately claims to be. No, the objection arises from a kind of distance, or dissonance, that comes between Brodeur and his music: can anyone who rhymes so brightly, sings so sweetly, and plays such winsome guitar be such a morose, feckless heel?
Well, possibly. The pandemic turned even some of the happiest souls sad and slovenly, and it slowed down or stopped outright an awful lot of forward motion (some of it for the best). For every artist who found the shutdown creatively liberating—many found the quiet earth a boon—there seem to be three or 300 who completely seized up. Despite suffering through six months of “total paralysis”, as he puts it on the opening track, “Sleeper Agent”, Brodeur wins simply for having finished Lagoon.
It’s no criticism but rather an acknowledgment of the vexing realities of the last few years to say that the second Bird Streets album doesn’t move with the same propulsion as the Falkner-driven first. That is by no means to say that Lagoon lacks energy, however. It’s just a different kind of energy, slower burning—a number of these songs run over five minutes—and it requires some energy from the listener, too. Yet it gives back more.