Yes, it’s another sad sack record where the tempo rarely veers above slow, but String of Bees deserves a better fate than being relegated to rainy Sunday afternoons. Granted, the opening track, “A Magnet in You”, is a perfect evocation of perpetually unrequited love, with its plainspoken lyrics and quiet, delicate delivery; it would seem to qualify the album for a place of honour in any sad bastard’s collection.
But by the second track, it’s clear that Lesser Birds of Paradise are working with a palette that extends beyond the pale pretty blues of broken-hearted boys in horn rims and cardigans. The dulcimer of the first song gives way to a slightly sinister acoustic blues, and the tone turns apocalyptic, albeit with a darkly humourous edge. “When the Devil Does a Drive-By” elicits a grim smirk, but maintains a sense of menace throughout. “The devil’s on his way,” Janka sings in his incongruously sweet whisper, “and he just don’t give a fuck.” Imagine a Robert Johnson who’s not trying to outrun the hellhound on his trail — he’s just waiting for the dog to show up and do its work.
Resignation rings throughout “Where the River Meets the Sea”, too — Janka sings of the end of a relationship before it’s even over. Like Babe Ruth pointing past the fences, Janka tells his beloved what will become of his whiskey-sodden self “when my time with you is done.” He’ll ache to recapture “A song as sweet / As the songs you sang / On the night / When you lay / In my arms / In my bed.” It’s a transfixing moment-extended, ethereal tones sound out beneath his quavering voice, while a guitar trills hauntingly-but its sweetness is fleeting: after all, we’re hearing a man describe his watery death to the girlfriend he’s certain will leave him.
Music also belies the lyrical content on “Mermaid on the Blvd”. Maracas, handclaps and Bacharach horns married to a light-stepping melody almost obscure the song’s portrait of a lonely transgendered woman in need of “a sensible dose / Of anti-androgen”. It’s one of the most instantly appealing songs on the CD, but the kitsch of the production and the slight snark in the lyrics leave an unsavory aftertaste. Oddly, when Janka turns the snark up to eleven on “Assorted Aphrodisiacs”, he’s much more successful. A Hammond organ adds ironic soul to this stab at self-pitying boys who “walk home alone when the library closes” and seek satisfaction from 900-numbers. It’s a decent dig at a good percentage of Lesser Bird of Paradise’s audience, I imagine — the aforementioned Sad Bastard contingent.
With all this talk of mockery and misery it’s easy to overlook String of Bee‘s few moments of hope. They are few, and when they’re found, they’re slim — hope seems to lie in a fast car out of town. In “You Snooze, You Lose”, one of the album’s few romantic songs without sinister or sorrowful undertones, Janka exhorts his love to “Drive on / If you must / Drive on / But remember / Call shotgun.” Lap steel colors the country shuffle of “Josephine”, where the titular character, disgraced in her hometown, is urged to “drive away with me”.
The open road offers possibilities. They might not be much to go by, but when these glimmers do flicker, as in the opening track when Janka intones, “I’ll adjust the headrest / Drive through the Midwest / Because I just can’t let it be,” the dogged determination of someone in love shines bright enough.
Warm and heartfelt but smart and challenging, String of Bees rewards multiple listens, as subtle layers of manipulated sound reveal themselves from behind the acoustic foreground and lyrics take unexpected turns. It’ll take just one listen, however, for you to wonder why you’ve never heard of Lesser Birds of Paradise before. There won’t be many better albums this year.