Did you know that Bowerbirds (comprised of vocalist/guitarist Philip Moore, accordionist/vocalist Beth Tacular, and violinist/vocalist Mark Paulson) opened twice for Arcade Fire in 2011? If you know anything about the North Carolina indie-folk trio, maybe from its opening dates for The Mountain Goats or its two previous stellar full-lengths (2009’s Upper Air and 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse), the very idea of the quiet, understated acoustic group playing in a giant arena, opening for one of the most bombastic indie acts around today seems absurd.
But then The Clearing’s roaring lead track, “Tuck the Darkness In”, starts to crescendo, and everything you thought you knew about Bowerbirds changes in a flash. So, forgive this cliché, but maybe great things can come in small packages. ”Tuck” starts similarly enough to an uptempo Upper Air track, but around 1:53, ghostly, echoing, Arcade Fire-like strings come in, followed by a semi-distorted electric guitar. Then the whole song begins to gradually shift shapes. For maybe the first time ever, a Bowerbirds song sounds menacing: “Oh, my dear friend, everything falls to death,” Moore sings in the song’s crescendoing refrain. “We tucked the darkness in.”
Nothing is what it seems on The Clearing. Sometimes the songs ruffle through dark forest brush for a minute or two before bursting into the sonic equivalent of a grand, open space, where everything is light, and the birds sing a pretty song.
The romantically linked Moore and Tacular had a similar journey in the three years since Upper Air, breaking up but soldiering on musically. Then Tacular fell to illness and injury, and was hospitalized. Moore visited her bedside and, in a tender realization, they got back together.
“I looked in his eyes and realized that he was scared,” Tacular said in a touching mini-documentary on the Bowerbirds’ web site. “And I was scared. It kind of made me realize that Phil really does love me, and I really do love Phil.”
It accounts for the darkness in songs like “Tuck the Darkness In”. It may sound ominous, but on The Clearing, the trio embraces the scary unknown warmly, in a way that can only be done by people who have gone through major life events together, coming out of them as better people — and closer emotionally — on the other side. You can feel that maturity and gratitude for health and life throughout the album.
This change has done a great service to the music, as well. The Clearing varies dynamics in a way not before heard in Bowerbirds’ demure quietude. There’s also a Neil Young-like muted strength here. The band’s approach to even the most raucous moments of Young-like folk rock is stately and beautiful, like an old, strong oak tree. In terms of its contemporaries, The Clearing demonstrates an increase in the trio’s breadth and scope, similar to Iron and Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, but minus the studio wonkery.
The Clearing sees Bowerbirds’ members taking on new roles as well. For one, Tacular’s lead vocals on the gorgeous “In the Yard” are accompanied by fuzz guitar as a sonic counterpoint to her delicate voice. Then there is perhaps the most charming thing about Bowerbirds’ music: deft vocal harmonies. There are maybe a few dozen indie acts today that can really pull off three-or-more-part harmonies. Bowerbirds is undeniably one of them, and it shows on tracks like “In the Yard” and “This Year”.
But what about what they’re singing? The Clearing‘s pastoral lyrics can be unnecessarily easy to overlook. “Walk the Furrows”calls for healing and reconnection, where Moore speaks of “a land without leaders,” encouraging us to “keep the secret/walk the furrows/mend the fences/plumb and level/go inside/stow the shovel,” seemingly borrowing from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”. Some of Bowerbirds’ lyrics might seem corny (“We’ll find a clearing in the forest of our hearts,” Moore sings on “This Year”), but they’re so quietly powerful and sincere that they’re hard to dismiss outright.
Lyrically, credit is also due to Bowerbirds for pulling from just the right springs here, including Frost and Southern gothic authors (William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and the gentler moments of Cormac McCarthy), alongside the music of Young, Leonard Cohen, and John Fahey, as well as contemporaries like Iron and Wine, Horse Feathers, and Great Lake Swimmers.
That bucolic, acoustic space is Bowerbirds’ main nest, and The Clearing pulls from well outside of it for the first time: The Afropop guitar, percussion, and kalimba thumb piano on “Hush” is what Dirty Projectors might sound like if it went all kumbaya; “Stitch the Hem” adds cabaret-sounding piano into the mix, with a touch of clapping/percussion clave rhythm; “Now We Hurry On” drones neo-classically with slowly arpeggiating electronic chimes, touches of melodica, and Spanish classical guitar.
“Take your time with it, all of it,” Moore sings on “Now We Hurry On”, The Clearing’s final track. “What we miss, we miss/And what we see is what we get.” It’s good advice for listening to this record, and, heck, life in general. Sit back, drink it in. This is Bowerbirds morphing sonically, slowly but then suddenly, like a butterfly. Shift your attention and it could flutter right by.
Essential Tracks: “Tuck the Darkness In”, “Walk the Furrows”, and “Stitch the Hem”