Find a college campus in any town and within a four-block radius, you’re certain to find a coffee shop holding an open mic night. We’ve all been to that coffee shop in some form. We all know the sound of a sad guy on a bar stool strumming his acoustic guitar, eyes squeezed shut and heart bleeding. Maybe we are that guy. Deep inside our music loving hearts, we want to like such honest outpourings of emotion, but we also have grown calloused to the sentiment. Why? Because it’s been done so much that it takes something special for us to sit up and take any kind of notice.
I saw the Bowerbirds live before I heard their studio work, so I wasn’t sure what to make of their unpolished presentation at the time. I admit on the first couple of listens to their albums, I had pegged the trio as a cluster of loners who should’ve kept their journal musings to themselves. Then I found myself actively seeking out tracks to listen to. What first sounded like a pastiche of Ryan Adams and Aimee Mann’s quieter moments eventually emerged as something more interesting than I’d expected.
Take Upper Air, the band’s latest effort. It’s an unassuming album from start to finish. Lead vocalist Phil Moore possesses a raw but not eccentric voice that doesn’t grab you immediately. It has rough edges to it, but it can still hold a melody. That alone isn’t noteworthy, but it is something special once you absorb the album as a whole and hear how his voice hangs over the arrangements and harmonizes with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Beth Tacular. Upper Air thrives on its imperfections and the open space in its arrangements.
On “Beneath Your Tree”, the accordion runs through the entire song with as much driving force as the drums. The accordion is so forward in the mix that when Moore and Tacular sing their respective parts, they sound as if they’re dueting with the instrument, not each other. When the music does fade away during the bridge, you’re left with an eerie emptiness supporting surrounding their words. That same space buoys “Bright Feature”, which is the epitome of a heartbroken folk song. Moore mixes adoration with pain: “Your restless mind was born in the flash / and you lived in these clouds with lightning in your feet / and yes, your mind was wound so tightly.” Images of the heavens permeate the entire album and, ground it, funnily enough.
The album title and cloud-filled cover art are obvious nods to the space above us, but the lyrics are strewn with mentions of towering trees, weather occurrences and gazes upward. Even the song titles (“Northern Lights “and “Silver Clouds”) remind us where the focus of the album is. Combined with the airy production, Upper Air is a tight group of songs that keeps a theme but doesn’t get bogged down in a concept. And as much as I hate to use “organic” to describe music, it’s appropriate in this instance. Jenny Lewis recorded her last album with minimal production-the band played the songs live and it went straight to tape. This album has that same quality to it, only with even less polish, if that’s possible.
The album’s final track, “This Day”, has Moore’s looped voice singing over a swell of acoustic guitar and chimes. The last words we hear are, “This day heaves like cold engine / with a tank of old gasoline / Live your mornings on ether / and tremble with anticipation / as the sun goes down”. Grim? Yes. But Moore, as he does in most songs, provides enough concrete details needed to pull off such broad statements. And that’s one of the biggest assets of these songs.
I can see this album scaring off people who are understandably apprehensive of yet another folk band. I can also imagine many people aren’t willing to put in the time to get beyond the initial “Is that all?” feeling I, too, had. Fair enough, it’s not easy work. But like Marissa Nadler’s Little Hells earlier this year, there’s something compelling happening just under the surface of these tracks and it deserves to be heard.