Release Date: Jul 7, 2009
Record label: Dead Oceans
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Folk
Bowerbirds shouldn't work. A boyfriend and girlfriend, he equipped with acoustic guitar, she with accordion, singing intensely earnest songs redolent of natural imagery that espouse with near-monomaniacal zeal a belief in the deep interconnectedness of human beings, animals, and the Earth. At a glance the whole thing smacks of hippie bullshit, but Phil Moore and Beth Tacular aren't trying to guilt you into making a donation to PETA, and they sure as shit aren't trying to take you on some lysergic-fueled trip.
Upper Air, the Bowerbirds' second release, finds the band continuing in the vein of their first effort; this is rustic, cerebral, ramshackle music. You could call it beard rock -- it's the kind of backwoods, wild-poet-of-the-mountain sound that nods to Bon Iver, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Iron & Wine. What makes the Bowerbirds just a touch different lies in how manipulative their songs can be, which is just to say that there are times when Upper Air is exhilarating.
One of the more charming debuts of 2007, Bowerbirds’ Hymns For a Dark Horse wasted no time in distancing itself from the current freak-folk movement to which it would inevitably be compared. Comprised of songs that unabashedly displayed a major preoccupation with themes of nature, written by a couple who live in an Airstream trailer in North Carolina, it was an utterly winsome slice of rustic music and poeticism. Singer/guitarist Phil Moore and accordionist Beth Tacular carried on with such sincerity that any notion of these kids being just another band of Merge Records-pandering indie hipsters went right out the window within seconds of hearing them.
I was kind of ready for the new Bowerbirds album. I’ve just spent a week trying to understand why, as a discriminating, though terminally unhip rock critic who cares about Art and Statements and Originality, why oh why I’m supposed to love the new Grizzly Bear record, instead of processing the whole affair with a simple “hmm, neat….next”. Let’s be generous and say that one is, er, dense, or perhaps just not easily accessible.
Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, the couple at the heart of Bowerbirds, live together in a self-built eco-friendly house in a wood in North Carolina. This snippet of biography more or less encapsulates their heartfelt modern folk music. The sparse percussion suggests the dry crackle of fallen twigs, Moore's wispy acoustic guitar replicates the shuffle of feet through autumn leaves, while Tacular's accordion whines like a wild midnight wind through shadowy branches.
There’s a bit in Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time where he discusses eating a ‘petite madeleine’ soaked in tea, and the involuntary memories and feelings that the act stirs up in him, what he associates with the act of eating cake, with its taste, its texture. It’s arguably the most famous passage in the book; possibly because it’s near the beginning and few people make it through the first volume, but perhaps because almost everyone has had a case of involuntary memory caused by some act or other. It’s pretty common for people to associate certain songs or sounds with certain times or experiences in their life, and regard a band or tune as more worthy of their attention because of what they associate it with, rather than its actual quality, or lack of.