Release Date: Mar 6, 2012
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
BowerbirdsThe Clearing[Dead Oceans; 2012]By Philip Cosores; March 8, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetAs far as backstories go, most albums follow the same sort of formula: after finishing a tour or some time off, the songwriters begin working, maybe there are some rehearsals, and then the eventual recording, mastering, sequencing, packaging, and all that stuff that is pretty boring for anyone who is not closely involved with the process. But, when some juicy events shape an albums creation, whether it is Rumours or For Emma, Forever Ago, classics are born through the marriage of great tunes and the mythology behind them. And, if you paid any attention to the early press releases for Bowerbirds' third album The Clearing, this release seemed primed to reach a status similar to these classics if only the music would match the stories that brought out their creation: singer and accordionist Beth Tacular's brush with death followed by her dissolution and reconciliation of her relationship singer Philip Moore.
Things have changed for Bowerbirds. They’ve released two stunning albums, toured the world and built an eco-friendly cabin in the woods of North Carolina. They adopted a dog. Bandmates and lovers Philip Moore and Beth Tacular have seen their relationship dissolve and rekindle as they’ve tried to reconcile their personal lives with that of a touring band.
Bowerbirds seem to have undergone something of a rebirth since their last release, 2009’s Upper Air. Reading around the duo, comprised of North Carolina based couple Beth Tacular and Phil Moore, it hardly seems as if the intermediary three years have been those of tranquillity and hibernation. Tacular was hospitalised for a lengthy period as a consequence of a ‘mystery’ illness, while the pair briefly decided it best to split, only to revaluate that decision soon after.
Bowerbirds are a folk trio known to too few people living outside of North Carolina’s metropolitan hub; they’re perhaps a bit too hipsterish for traditionalists and vice versa. The band’s 2007 debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse, caught the tail-end of what was then called the freak-folk movement, though if I had to judge on the evidence of Bon Iver and Helplessness Blues, I’d say that all folk is at least somewhat freaky these days. It’s now more or less expected that folk musicians will splice a bit of psychadelia or chamber pop or even modern classical into their granddaddy’s Dylan.
For most folks, good old-fashioned death is an awfully daunting concept to unpack. But it makes sense that Bowerbirds, a North Carolina duo known for its soft and folksy paeans to nature, would reckon frankly with The End on The Clearing: Nowhere else is death quite as palpable-- sensible, even-- as the garden, the forest, the backyard. "Oh, my dear friend, everything falls to death," Phil Moore sings on the opening track.
Sonically armed with more electric guitars and instruments than ever before, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular present The Clearing, the Bowerbirds’ most expansive and highly produced album to date. The usual acoustic guitars and strings arrangements open up to thrumming electric guitars and vibraphones that are driven by handclaps and steady drum beats. Whatever instruments the ’Birds use, each song is earnest, humble folk music rooted by lyrics that search for meaning and understanding of life through nature, animals and love.
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.
One of the truest tests of a great band is how they handle their first recording made with significant financial backing. Such an explosion of possibilities has often spelled disaster for young musicians. Bands like Bowerbirds, whose original beauty lay in the homespun simplicity of their gentle folk songs, risk masking their talents in muddied sounds or trading in what makes them unique for a flashy but homogenizing production.
The Clearing, North Carolina's Bowerbirds' third album, moves the band one broad step away from the rough-edged gothic ruralisms that characterized their first two full-lengths. The band and mood of the arrangements are the same -- an acoustic-leaning trio, strings -- but there is a far glossier edge to the proceedings. Once associated with the vague edge of the freak folk revival of the early- to mid-2000s, The Clearing places Bowerbirds squarely in a more considered place.
In a pre-release mini documentary chronicling Bowerbirds' third album, The Clearing, Philip Moore (vocals, guitar) and Beth Tacular (accordion, vocals) dub the period before the making of the album as their "disaster chapter." Over the course of a year, the pair's dog broke her pelvis, they experienced various health problems and near-death accidents, and Moore wrestled with the idea of being single while touring with his ex. All of that chaos of falling out and back into love, left the Bowerbirds tandem and third member/production assistant/violinist Mark Paulson at a serious crossroads. The resulting eleven tracks aren't nearly as elegiac as one would expect, though.
Beth Tacular and Phil Moore – a nature-loving, woods-dwelling, earnestly creative pair who comprise two-thirds of indie folk trio Bowerbirds – are not the sort of couple on whom you'd wish calamity. But when the result of broken ribs, serious illness, break-up and reconciliation is an album as gorgeous as this, you half-wish the hardships keep coming. Their songs on this, their third record, are more expansive, bolder and stranger than those that have come before: like life, they're also messy and loosely formed, swelling and subsiding in ways that sound both slapdash and irresistibly serendipitous.
Bowerbirds' third record stays the familiar course set by their first two albums: pretty, pastoral neo-folk and heartfelt, poetic lyrics are still generally their rule of thumb, softly sung and largely unplugged. Continuing the ideas of 2009's Upper Air rather than building upon them, The Clearing is as pleasant as their previous work, but suffers from a nagging case of diminishing returns. .
If you were going to tell a John Bunyan-style allegory about modern indie folk revivalism in America, it might read a lot like the life of painter Thomas Hart Benton. The son of a US Congressman and namesake of the Senator who popularized westward expansion (who gave him “a kind of compulsion for greatness”), Benton found himself stuck between the abstract expressionist avant-garde of his day and his own pragmatic patriotism. A modernist who nevertheless couldn’t shake the nagging appeal of provincial American life, Benton was drummed out of the New York art world for his unfashionable style and somewhat confrontational personality, his pragmatic vision taken as didactic or even fascist.
It is always very interesting (and sometimes heart-warming) when a band develops into something special in the public eye. There is something entertaining in anticipating the fate of those artists that start off raw and then eventually arrive at something extraordinary (some satisfying examples of the latter from last year include Wild Beasts and White Denim), as opposed to those that arrive at listeners' ears fully formed. Bowerbirds' Phil Moore and Beth Tacular have taken six years since forming to reach their peak with The Clearing, a breathtaking album that capitalises on and emphasises the good things about their previous two releases, and does away with the tendency towards unfocussed warbling that was a (not entirely horrible) feature of their previous two albums.
A natural progression, and the best LP yet from the indie-folk couple. James Skinner 2012 Over their previous two albums as Bowerbirds, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular have tapped into a wonderful strain of Americana and created a world unto itself. Theirs is a space dictated by the changing of the season, the immensity of nature, and the power – and fallibility – of memory.
North Carolina’s Bowerbirds returns with its third gracing of folk-rock and emotional realization on The Clearing. Breaking up, broken ribs, dogs hit by cars, illness and reassurance of love, partnership and believing again all turn up on the LP, led by Phil Moore (vocals and guitar), Beth Tacular (accordion and vocals) and Mark Paulson (violin and vocals). The three have crafted a cheery but dark melodic diary.
Bowerbirds have had an unusual trajectory for a band who formed only five years ago. It’s becoming so common to see groups emerge, laden with hype and, soon after, label expectations, that to discover a band moving quietly onto their third album of tuneful indie-folk after nothing but muted, if seemingly unanimously positive, critical acclaim seems downright odd. Then again, ‘The Clearing’ came out of anything but muted circumstances, so perhaps they find their fill of excitement elsewhere.