By The Birdman Rallies
The first issue I noticed with this CD is that it is titled "Gondola," yet features some vaguely equine illustration for the cover art. I fail to see the connection. Thankfully there aren't many other issues on this twenty minute EP. This is a CD brimming with unabashedly fun and impressively accomplished song-writing: infectious melodies; danceable, uplifting rhythms; intelligent arrangement; intriguing lyrics that are at times elusive in their meaning; and all that jazz. I mean pop. The recording quality is wonderfully clear - I mean, jeez, I can hear the bass lines and kick drum perfectly clearly! - to say it was all recorded on one of the members' laptops, save for "Valley of Dreams," which was recorded with James Mottershead at Cottage Road and Chairworks in Leeds. Great job, guys.
The EP kicks off, "to use the parlance of our times" -- to shoehorn in a popular quote of our times -- with a song electrifyingly titled "Lightning". The chord sequence has been used a million times before and will be used countless times in the future, but the Birdmen have a knack (me and my colloquialisms today!) for putting their own unique stamp, nay, their own signature, nay, their own wax seal, featuring full coat of arms, on the back of generic, figurative, musical envelopes. The song begins tremulously, but is lent confidence by the musical bodyguards of bass and drums, played in a suitably burly manner by......... I wish I could give credit to the players as their energetic rhythm section propels these songs with that inexorable rhythm that makes the band such a joy to listen to. You're probably thinking, "Gale, surely their names are listed on their website. Couldn't you just check on there?" Well that's what I did, dummy. They don't have such details listed; just four tragically disenfranchised names, un-appended by details of their purposes in the band.
"Lightning" has nothing especially outstanding about it (although I would assert that the Birdman Rallies' dullest moments are more interesting and exhilarating than a lot of bands' most interesting) but it serves as a pleasant introduction to the CD and should not be written off. The song-writing is incredibly well-controlled; as the structure rolls out one simply feels it tick all the boxes of where a song should crescendo, diminuendo, rallentando, a tempo, deviate into a bridge, return for a triumphant last chorus and so on. The different sections are marked clearly by the dropping in and out of different instruments. I was going to write an example and keep talking about this song, but Spotify says I can never play it again unless I pay them. Pay you with what, Spotify? I don't get paid for my pontificating. And because you're now preventing said pontificating, I couldn't get paid even if the chance came along. There's some kind of catch-22 in there somewhere.
Let's move on shall we? "Scarper, Scorpion Sting Out" seems to tell the tale of someone "murdering to dissect," (to show off the fact that I studied Wordsworth in A level English Literature): "I found a magic / You ruined it for everybody / By saying it could be a trick / And we are all the victims of a huge conspiracy". I've always disliked people like that too, guys. Maybe we should hang out? I don't think they'll get back to me. I enjoyed a tingle of pleasant surprise in my ear canals when I heard a bona fide dominant seventh chord before springing into the chorus in a minor key - possibly the relative minor. I don't know, and am too busy/incompetent to find out. There is a wonderful line at the start of the second verse; a lampoon of Searcher-ian incisiveness. At first it jarred on me: "That lyric does not there belong!" I thought. Man, I am so stupid. It's probably the best line on the CD. It goes as follows: "And now you're quoting me an article from 1994* / Like it just occurred to you". It is a wonderful satire of pretentious, Charlotte Haze-esque people, and it is lent all the more humour by the chirpy chords and the similarly jovial bass line, which is to be admired in its own right for its melodicism and rhythmic exactitude, which is shared by the drums. I also noticed on a closer listen that the harmony is subtly added to in the chorus by the synthesiser part. These songs all do reward you on repeat listens, although I'm not sure to what extent because Spotify only lets me play them five times.
"You Are the Sun" is pure charm. A delightful fingerpicked acoustic guitar part - or, rather two parts on one guitar; one a moderately involved sequence of semiquavers on the lower strings, the other a simple exchange of the two notes comprising a cheerful fourth on the higher strings - accompanies typically dreamy vocals about someone being enamoured with someone. The details are unclear but also irrelevant. These lyrics, like all the best lyrics in my opinion, are vague; they create impressions, images and idiosyncrasies (N.B. They do not create idiosyncrasies, I just wanted a third word beginning with 'i'). I recall reading a passage in "Cold Mountain" that said something along the lines of: the lyrics to a particular song (which was being sung at the time) contained about as much content, in their own right, as a telegram but, when sung with the music, the same words were lent an entirely new, profound meaning. The passage stuck with me because it rang so true to me.
Incidentally, one of the best lines on the CD is in this song: "I rolled your name on my tongue for the feel". Without the music it reads as being a little seedy, but in context, it is riveting; trust me. Anyway, the first verse charm, which I mentioned earlier, is joined by a bass drum, on the beat, which subtly makes the mood of the song all the more sprightly. This understatement explodes into percussive glory on the second verse, with a keyboard vaguely emulating the kind of accompaniment that might be lent in more financially abundant circumstances by a cello or double bass; it is presumably played by the bass player as there is no bass guitar in this song. This discovery leads me to believe that I should have termed the "keyboard vaguely emulating...a cello or double bass" less verbosely as "synth bass". Oh well, too late to go back and edit now.
"Valley of Dreams" features two guitars and the bass in a polyphonic dialogue. It is a rare pleasure to hear such creative melodic interplay in this genre and it is one of the most enjoyable and inspired moments on this CD. Perhaps it is this song which best shows what separates this band from most others, particularly other local bands, although popular and successful bands are far from exempt. The clarity of intent and vision is simply impressive. One does not encounter considered writing like this as often as one should. Most bands work in a very methodical and uninspired way most of the time. I have listened to more songs than I care to think about where the construction clearly went as follows: guitarist comes up with riff or chord sequence, four or eight bars, repeat ad infinitum; drummer adds cliched beat along the lines of kick on down beat, snare on the up, fills in quavers and semi-quavers with hi-hat or whatever is to hand; bassist plays the root in constant stream of quavers; singer adds uninspired melody and conventional lyrics about girlfriend or ex-girlfriend and being mopey. It's not that these bands are consciously lazy; they simply don't have understanding of or control over the music. Music is an unwieldy beast. I once knew a guy who tamed lions and played music and would often say, "Music is harder to tame than lions, idiot. Leave me alone." I mean, I never knew anyone like that; I just invented him for the purposes of this line of argument. And young bands find it very, very, very hard to come to terms with the fact that they don't have control over the music and often fail to write great material. It's because once you've worked for years on playing your instrument and then write a song, you love it anyway simply because you wrote it, I think. It takes a formidable capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism to write music as successfully as The Birdman Rallies.
To re-stumble back to the point, "Sour Grapes" is a fun, rhythmically inviting romp about crushing grapes, and, of course, the obligatory subsequent wine drinking - it has a wonderful sense of community, as well as energy. It swims about jollily and rhythmically, and is played with formidable "tightness," for want of a better word. It occasionally ventures out of the home key, which the Birdmen do a lot, much to my aural pleasure. It is not hugely sophisticated modulation or Schoenberg-ian serialism (nor would I want it to be), but their key changes bring a fresh aspect to a song, instead of letting it float along on the same wavelength - a prime example of the kind of thoughtful writing on which I just passionately expounded in the last paragraph.
"City of Polaroid Explosions" surprises me (not unpleasantly) as the choice of last track. I was expecting the famous "You and I," which almost always closes their impressive live shows, and seems to be a favourite of the band's and their fans. Maybe they're sick of it. "City of Polaroid Explosions" (a brilliant title, by the way) is apparently three and a half minutes long, yet it seems to me to last about one. Time flies when you're having fun, I guess. This song has glorious percussion, background vocal "bop"s, flute-like (or, if you're feeling fancy: "flautando") chords on the synthesiser, a delightful bass solo (and I mean solo in the literal sense of an instrument [virtually] playing unaccompanied, not virtuosic travailing up and down the fingerboard) with delightful tenth intervals - one of the most musical weapons in the bass' arsenal - and the end result of all this is joy. What a joy it is to hear music so full of joy, when most local bands are playing mawkish indie or emo (if anyone still plays emo?) or nails-down-a-blackboard metal. Sorry if I offended you, metal-heads, but I'm actually not.
So, to state the obvious, I recommend this disc highly, to anyone. It seems to appeal to almost everyone that comes into contact with it because, despite the success of detritus such as Justin Breiber or Lady GooGoo, it seems (or at least I like to think so) that people still fundamentally appreciate quality if they're exposed to it, and particularly if they're allowed or have gathered for themselves the knowledge in order to appreciate said quality. The Birdmen have a winning formula here: their uplifting songs can be enjoyed by anyone, and furthermore, I think virtually everyone will be able to tell that it is quality music. Oh sure, it ain't life-changing-ly profound like the Great Composers of old, but it operates in smaller circles, deals in smaller emotional currency: charm, wit, joy, dance, exuberance, energy, intelligence and all that. And who doesn't need or want those?
I think the overarching triumph of the CD and the band is the maturity of the writing. All the parts are interesting and, assuming each member writes their own part, every one of them should feel an enormous sense of pride in finding that sweet spot, that fine line between a boring part, and a part that is over the top, comically virtuosic or egotistically attention-grabbing. It's hard to do; harder than you may think. Back when I played the bass, in the 1920s, my aversion to playing boring bass lines and perpetual root notes was such that I would occasionally disturb the music in my instrumental experimentation and interminable flight towards the sun, a la Icarus. There is no ego on this disc; this is wonderfully and clearly arranged music by a group of musicians who have dedicated time and thought to writing individual parts that, when played together, become more than the sum of said parts. I suppose it's remarkable because there is professionalism and clarity here, amongst a landscape of anonymous bands churning out poorly recorded, confused music. Bands who aren't yet a unit, or don't know what they want to be, or don't know what they want to be and are happy to be bland, mediocre or just plain awful. Radiohead said "anyone can play the guitar". I think they even wrote a song about it. It's true. Anyone can play the guitar, but it takes a special refinement to have such a perfect clarity of vision and style, which is what makes bands rise above the local, amateur scene, which I hope Birdman Rallies get the chance to do, if they want it. They deserve it, and so does the populace.
*It may be 1984. Once again, Spotify's eternal greed stopped my re-listening, so I referred to a YouTube video of the song (oh, YouTube, I will always love you, as long as you stay free) in which the lyric stated 1994. I thought that was different from the Gondola recording, but, alas, I can't ever be sure, unless I start making £5 a month, and when is THAT going to happen!?