By The Birdman Rallies
La! A new release from The Birdman Rallies!
This is a brilliant (brilliant in the sense of effervescent, ebullient) album, just like all of the other material released by The Birdman Rallies, though with the added benefit of greater duration than their previous collections. The production is at its best yet (and I thought it was exemplary on their last EP): every part breathes and coheres with the others.
Evidence of the band's distinctive character is extensive across the album, in the forms of virtues that have become their hallmark: beautiful arrangements, an acute sense of the importance of light and shade, manifest creativity and intelligence, excellent yet restrained playing, exuberant rhythmic architecture, resultant compulsion on the listener's part to dance, halcyon two- and three-part vocal harmonies, and groovy melodies and riffs.
Of course, as with (virtually?) every recording ever made, it has flaws, which I'll explore as we go on. There are no overarching or underlying shortcomings affecting everything on the disc: the flaws are mostly minor imperfections, errors in judgement, &c., &c. - And these, needless to say, are dangerously subjective matters for a critic to pick on; but I can't pick on flaws in playing: there are none! If there were an overarching issue, it would be the looming presence of electronic noises on the album, some of which don't come off with the (ostensibly) care-free ease and characteristic zeal of their earlier, guitar-centred music.
I noticed in track seven, Lampshades, after a spate of electronic songs, a return to the kind of material that is typical of what I like about the band: a somewhat involved fingerpicked acoustic guitar figure, not completely concordant, changing keys, or possibly not in a particular key. However, these virtues were largely absent from the very electronically driven (or laden) tracks: four and five. (Six is rather electronic, and is one that caused ambivalence, but which I ultimately came to dig; I'll go into detail later in the review.) Whether the problems had any relation to the presence of electronics is hard to tell, and is for you to draw your own conclusions about. Anything I would say would merely be baseless assertion.
Number three, What Is This House, is enjoyable, but lacks the memorable characteristics of its two predecessors (more on these later); but it also lacks the unenviable characteristics of its successor (more on this in the next paragraph). The song has a tension in its verse chords (it features some luxurious harmony, contributed to a great deal by the great bass line - the Birdmen have yet to exhibit a bad bass line), which is resolved beautifully by the normalcy of those to which they change in the chorus. The song has that inexorable, fun rhythmic drive of all their songs and some fine lyrics (more on one of these in particular towards the end of the review). There are myriad coruscations of spectacular lyrics (witty, observant, precise, evocative, &c.) throughout the recording.
Four, Full Moon Every Night, is a monstrous pastiche of house music, and bears the repetitious rhythms and monotony typical of that brainless genre. It is almost rescued by an acoustic guitar breakdown: although what it is playing is unremarkable, the release from the oppression of the electronic sounds is a breath of fresh air - but the lyrics are this song's redeeming quality. There are some excellent lines:
'You are highly strung, so when I pluck you, you should ping',
'Trying to see everything as being so profound/Makes it hard to keep my size ten plimsolls on the ground', &c.
What is curious is the juxtaposition of one of the most detestable lines (line one) with one of the most wonderful (line three):
'Hey, we can go and party where it's full moon every night,
'Wake up in a sweat about which persona to use'.
Line three makes me suspect that the song is not so much a pastiche of house music as a parody of its shallow, short-term, 'euphoric' precepts towards which it (strives? - No, the only strife is for those who don't care for the genre) ...plummets, let's say. If the song is a parody, it may have a hard time getting that across with the satirical lyrics buried behind the beats.
Line one, if it is to be taken at face value (and I can't see any reason, other than wishful thinking, for thinking otherwise) is your typical vapid party lyric. So, there seems to be a contradiction here: perhaps, rather than a parody, it is simply a pastiche, but it just has those more interesting lines, because the Birdmen tend to write interesting lines (cf. Ockham's razor: the simplest explanation - that which rests on the fewest assumptions - is often the correct one).
Five, I Was Left Wondering, is virtually devoid of anything noteworthy, aside from a pleasant chord change in the chorus, an incongruous and comical keyboard riff, and the first instance of swearing on the album ('Fuck this scene'). I don't especially care for swearing in music (nor in speech for that matter), and I will probably be thought of as a prude by my contemporaries, of whom there are many who display a marked propensity it. Alas, I think it's almost the verbal equivalent of someone punching a wall in anger: ultimately, it helps no-one, and is an act of universal detriment, even if it offers very, very short-term relief. Swearing is a shortcut to expression, and in song writing it is lazy, ugly, &c., to my mind, and it mars a couple of songs in this collection. It is also particularly incongruous in this band's material, which is otherwise so light and joyous.
Six, Story Age, is simultaneously compelling (due to the complicated layers of contrasting rhythms with oddly and fascinatingly placed accents) and tedious (due to a looped 'uh' helping to delineate the strong beats). It is, like all the songs, densely layered and textured, though the differing rhythms and unusual timing (I think there may be seven beats in the bar, but it's hard to differentiate between strong beats and accented would-be weak beats, and to find where the 'one' is) make it endlessly interesting; and if one can ignore the abrasive 'uh', and appreciate its contribution to the odd-time fun (as I have learned to do), this song represents the emergence from the dip in quality that came with tracks four and five. (I deem it necessary to add that I keep coming back to this paragraph to add nice things to say about this song, which, due to the actions just described, must mean that it grows on the listener.)
Seven, Lampshades, has a finely wrought guitar figure playing throughout (though the verse is a bit more interesting than the chorus is). The second verse is one of the truly great moments on disc, with the lead vocal in counterpoint with another, independent in character and lyrical content (as well as melody).
Number eight, Unexpected Item, is a slightly puzzling song (true to its title): humourous and frivolous. It deals with the issue of an 'unexpected item in the bagging area' - an exclamation in the chorus that is accompanied by beeps and bloops and clinical semi-quavers that replicate alarming machinery. It is far from the best song on the album, but has a zany charm, an enjoyable lightness of humour, and its simulation of technological noises (without actually emulating them, only suggesting them) is quite an admirable achievement.
Nine, Helium, is good, but lacks the musical imagination of the better tracks on the album: the chord sequence, melody, bass line, drums, &c., are all fairly typical - though not without the odd flourish that is simply part of the band's makeup.
Ten, Coelacanths, is one of the best songs, perhaps only supplanted by the first two (which I will address in due course). It is, yes, sullied by an unnecessary 'fucking' towards the end, but I'm willing to overlook this for two reasons: primo, the offending word is a quotation (still, a paraphrase would have been preferable); secondo, it would be a shame to write off an otherwise stellar song on account of a staunch deontological premise.
The song begins with panned, pellucid percussion; then come two parts in counterpoint on a banjo and something else that could be a banjo, mandolin, guitar, or something else entirely - my ear has failed me in this instance, reader. These are accompanied by cute piano triads and latterly by chords strummed on an acoustic guitar, after which the lovely melody enters, delivering some of the best lyrics on the album:
'Swam with a shoal coelacanth;
'Those eyes that bulge in their sockets.
'See I was not well designed,
'To fit so snug in your pocket.'
They go on in fine fashion, mentioning wildebeest, formaldehyde, &c. I'll resist the temptation to reprint the words in their entirety. Without this abnegation, this review would be interminable: I would write out most, if not all, of the album's words. But, yes, the lyrics are excellent throughout, even with the filth. Also, it is worth mentioning the riff played in parallel octaves by guitar and bass in the latter half of the verses and the way the twain separate and are developed into new material in the mellow chorus, amidst other sonorous delights.
The album edges towards its ineluctable end (as all albums must, alas) with an arrangement of various percussion parts, lining on top of one another in a non-tonal harmony (oxymoron?) that is very pleasing.
Having covered the middle to end first, I shall proceed to the beginning, in anachronistic style. The album begins wonderfully with Telescope Katie - a dazzling song, with adorable guitar figures, divers sections, and all the quintessential Birdman Rallian tools. Dan Webster's voice (and this is true of all the performances of said voice) is not particularly powerful, nor has it the greatest range; but it has a distinctive character: it is charming: it has an intrinsic friendliness in its tone: it's a voice that feels like your congenial guide through the settings described in the lyrics: it is the Virgil to your Dante.
The lyrics are exceeding marvellous in this song: I don't know of a song that so charmingly deals with a girl's preoccupation with astronomy. Here they are in their entirety, for your admiration (I apologise for any misquotation - I have a tendency towards selective interpretation):
'I know there's beauty up in the cosmos
'Hydrogen clouds, light years across.
'Light years, light years, all those [zeroes?] in a vacuum
'Knock my socks off; feel unsteady.
'She's always looking at stars and not at me; I wish she would.
'Take your eye from the telescope, Katie.
'Oh sure, there's wonder, but where's the feeling?
'Where's the skin? Where's the feeling?
'I'm scared I lost her to her obsession
'Day time comes now as a blessing.'
Next is Storm Cloud Heat, which has an oblique keyboard part, which I enjoy a great deal; the music has the cleverness and character that I keep stressing the importance of (which I may be doing to an irritating extent). I am going to abandon my reservations of judgement and declare categorically that this is the best song on the album. What cogent material. What inexorable fun. What affecting changes between major and minor tonality. What troughs and peaks between sections. What harmonies. What a singular, infectious central riff. What variation in a mere three minutes. What consistent invention and imagination. Ears: sated.
Addendum: I noticed a couple of things that I like about the band in general, which I've always felt, but have been unable to articulate until now:
The lyrics often deal with observation: we are treated to some hawk-eyed observations of people, their pretensions, and so on. They can spin very realistic situations, settings, &c., with very few words - an economy of writing that is essential to writing effective, compact pop songs (as these are, at three to four minutes each - aside from Coelacanths, which is about five). Ay, many lyricists are brief but rarely do they construct so much with so little. And many are verbose but fail to render such clear impressions with said verbosity.
Aside from this, most artists just don't display the imagination we see on this album (usually because they don't have it). For example, I noticed a lyric that piqued my interest in track three:
'We walked along the riverside.
'What is a body when it dies?'
What a wonderful, abrupt change from an ordinary, yet clear description of an exterior event in the first line, to the interior thoughts of the narrator in the second. Positively Joycean. Approbation: earned.
I noticed that there is hardly a bar of this album that doesn't feature an extra harmony, extra instrumental part, flourish in the production, or something that another, lesser band just wouldn't think of. Such unremitting invention is such a rare thing. Musically, the songs are quite simple: their melodic figures are short and often diatonic, their key changes are few, and the songs' repeats many. What gives them the consummate feel, the sense that you are listening to something of quality, lies in the instrumental textures of the songs. The constant variation of texture in Storm Cloud Heat makes it the best song on the album, in my opinion; and the worst songs still have at least a little of this variation - and these moments make those songs' redeeming features!
So, it is a restless invention and imagination - and it lies in the sometimes rapid, sometimes gradual building, demolishing, and rebuilding of the ear-catching sonorities; the sophistication in choosing where to do more, less, &c. - that forms my speculative premise for why I enjoy the music.
This empyrean album can be downloaded free at thebirdmanrallies.bandcamp.com