Music Reviews
Upper Air

Bowerbirds Upper Air

(Dead Oceans) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

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. Freak-folk is in the air freak folks and after all us folks spent all that time freaking out to Animal Collective, Veckatimest comes along and challenges us further. Damnit, last night I even pulled out my copy of Buckley’s Happy/Sad just to touch at the roots of the whole thing. I found more passion and humanity there, but I’m old so what do I know. 

So here come Bowerbirds, promising a more traditional, grounded folkie experience than the arthouse devotees right from the first few bars of House of Diamonds. A guitar strums, a piano joins in, and the singer sings an identifiable melody. What sweet relief! What unassuming simplicity! I’m reminded immediately of Aberfeldy’s Young Forever, another sweet, unassuming record that bordered dangerously close to adjectives like fey and twee, but somehow pulled it off. This is a darker set of songs than that, which means it has a lot minor and/or dissonant chords. Full disclosure:  I don’t go around listening to stuff like this. The genre is so musically straightforward that I think it requires you to be sucked in by either exceedingly strong melodies or by intriguing lyrics. I like folk music when it’s weird, strange, mysterious, funny, heartbreakingly tender or tells a good story; otherwise I’ll leave it to others. Upper Air is what you might call modern folk music, in that it retains the form’s devotion to acoustic instruments and simple songs, but uses an expanded vocabulary of harmonies for the sake of variety. That being said, I find the music only mildly interesting and so, in the name of fairness, I’ve forced myself to really listen to the lyrics, which I hate doing. If you’ve got something to say to me, mix the vocals right up front and say it to my face. I want the words to reach out and grab me – I don’t want to have to go looking for your “poetry”. 

So I had to go and listen carefully to the words, and that has put me in a foul mood. But I’m not going to hold it against Bowerbirds. I didn’t find much to excite me, but I didn’t really expect to. Very, very few people have something clever to say and the musical ability to put it into song. That leaves us with ten pleasant songs about nothing much in particular, sung by vocalists of middling charisma. In that way it’s like most of what you hear in Indieworld, no better, no worse. People seem to like this kind of thing so maybe you will too.