The seven songs on Steeple Vultures last for nearly 36 minutes, but that barely seems like long enough. Since singer-songwriter Nate Tarr formed Wood Ear as a solo-plus-friends project in 2003, the outfit's released only two EPs: 2007's phenomenal and ramshackle self-titled debut and Steeple Vultures, a ready progression for the same mesmerizing misery signals. The five-year gap owes in part to the simple difficulty of building and developing a band and to the exigencies of existence, including but certainly not limited to keyboardist Krystal Black's battle with cancer.
Appropriately, these songs poetically flirt with the liberation of death and the brutality of nature, with the complete upheaval of broken love and the compulsory push of persavive consumerism. "I'm just a soft sack of bones," Tarr sings above intertwining, razor-sharp guitar lines, "a man of thinking, games and roads." But the struggles and wait seem to have strengthened Wood Ear's resolve to work through the worst of these issues. Despite the despondency etched inside Tarr's lines, his band drives ahead without restraint, even approaching a measure of fun at one point. They charge the deadpan title track with steely resolve, and smolder with allegiance behind the sadness-needs-support lament "Beastless Burden." Indeed, now that Tarr anchors his own cohesive quintet, he has crutch, caboose and catalyst for these tunes.
With Steeple Vultures, Wood Ear arrives at a perfect nexus of the Triangle's dual indie rock and alt-country legacies. Those paths aren't necessarily separate, no, but their crossroads are rarely this developed. Come to think of it, hard-won second comings are rarely this complete, either.
(Disclosure: Nathan Golub, who plays guitar in Wood Ear, is an employee of the Independent Weekly.)