Futurebirds Play to Their Strengths on 'Teamwork'
Indie country-rockers Futurebirds return with a renewed focus on Teamwork, but the album would benefit from taking more risks.
15 January 2020
Futurebirds arrived a decade ago with their main ingredients ready to mix. Their country-rock aesthetic, comfortable harmonies, and well-received live shows had them on a focused trajectory. After 2015's Hotel Parties, the group took five years off from recording albums. A pair of EPs mostly loaded with covers treaded water for a couple of years. Now Futurebirds return with Teamwork, an album that draws on their skill and experience to highlight their strengths, but without paying off the long wait for new music.
The group's biggest challenge was going to be carving out their distinctive space. Futurebirds rarely stumble in execution, though finding room in a loosely psychedelic Southern rock scene may be difficult. At times the group comes on like a happier My Morning Jacket, and their relaxed groove on record puts them somewhere between the jam scene and nearby indie-rockers. That liminality may work to their advantage, their ability to harness a particular mood being perhaps the most Futurebirds thing about them. On Teamwork, the group get in that place and stay there, perfectly satisfying anyone's Futurebirds itch.
While that approach makes the album a success, it also highlights its limitations. The group's professionalism stands out; they know how to craft what they want, each slide guitar line and backing vocal in place. Too often, though, the specifics of the music turns into a drab consistency. Nearly every song on the record works. But throughout the tone and style lead to a steadiness rather than an exciting variability.
The album might feel limited, but it doesn't mean the individual songs drag. "My Broken Arm" shifts into driving country mode. The performance rocks, but as hurt and ambivalence turn into at least a little certainty, and that gives the song an extra boost. We don't understand the situation exactly, but we don't need to, and the guitar fills us in on whatever we might be missing. "Crazy Boys" settles into that mid-tempo pacing, but the lyrical mix of nostalgia, loss, and persistence gives the song a memorable edge. The song's instrumental outro adds a pointed development to the mood. "All Damn Night" puts a darker side to the music, fitting for late-night thoughts. "Waiting on a Call" closes Teamwork with one of the band's most patient and carefully constructed songs.
Those cuts give the album a solid foundation, but too many of the other songs function as placeholders. The band know exactly what to do, but they'd benefit from forgetting some of that. At times the cosmic element of the guitars sounds like background reverb. Futurebirds can play wonderfully enjoyable alt-country, but they can also sound like a soporific version of their forerunners, a drugged Jayhawks. The time off from recorded may have focused Futurebirds, but what they need is a higher tolerance for risk-taking. The skill and the songwriting remain, but they're waiting to go somewhere unexpected.