Bowerbirds are one of the most distinctive bands in the Triangle. Beth Tacular squeezes her accordion as Phil Moore coos about flora and fauna. Mark Paulson adds tasteful violin and keyboard flourishes, and the melodies slaver in slow, honey-like clumps, washing over a booming bass drum. On 2007's Hymns For a Dark Horse, that sound was strikingly realized, especially for a debut, and the CD won the trio a fair share of fans, especially among those of the take-this-music-seriously contingent at NPR and the Gray Lady.
After all, the band had written the sort of introductory LP few are ever poised enough to write: one with a distinct point of view. Earthen, spare, a bit whimsical but still ripe for wine-fueled campfire sing-alongs, Dark Horse (initially released by Indy Music Editor Grayson Currin on his Burly Time Records) favored the minor-key yearn of Appalachia while cherry-picking from the mossier varieties of neo-folk and the ephemera of Gypsy music. It sounded beautiful.
The problem? After Hymns, the public's emphatic thumbs-up gave the band carte blanche to experiment, to take the Earth-dweller of Dark Horse and let it fly on Album Two, Upper Air. But the band's steadfast loyalty to its distinctive sound doesn't allow for much wiggle room. The daylight between the second record—a confident, beautifully played statement—and its predecessor—a confident, beautifully played statement—is negligible. The second the nylon strings quiver on "House of Diamonds," the moment the accordion wheezes on "Teeth," it's difficult to hear this record as anything other than a missed opportunity to test the air up there.
It's not that Bowerbirds needed to re-invent themselves on Upper Air. After all, some of the songs are still gems: "Beneath Your Tree," with Tacular singing lead, Moore's voice cracking over the line "find my way," breaks up the palette and tone enough to stand above the pack. "Chimes" wafts in on a buried organ swell and an accordion line that leads instead of follows, making room for a second melody that entices the drum kit to join in and propel the song to a tidy climax.
Suggesting a far more concise Decemberists (whose grandiloquence would invigorate a handful of these songs), "Chimes" is one of Upper Air's most rewarding moments. The high-water mark, though, belongs solely to "Crooked Lust," a song that plays coyly with meter and embraces Moore and Tacular's meticulous brand—picked classical guitar, rim clicks and bass drum. It adds contrapuntal muted guitars, marimba and an out-of-tune, sustain-heavy piano to mesmerizing and surprising effect.
The irony and tension of the whole affair finally reveals itself on the album-closing "This Day." "It's not clear how this day will end," sings Moore above slow harpsichord and piano, "but I have put my money down on having a clear view from this house to the heavens, and back again."
There's wide-eyed possibility in Moore's voice during the first line, but he puts the premium on that last bit. There's a clear view on Upper Air, and it doesn't sound like Bowerbirds will get tired of the vista any time soon. So, maybe we'll always know how this day will end, and we can at least take a bit of comfort in that underappreciated fact.
Bowerbirds and Megafaun tour North America together through mid-August, returning home for a shared bill at The ArtsCenter Saturday, Aug. 22.