Upper Air

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Dead Oceans

A listener could be forgiven for finding Bowerbirds’ debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse just a bit too preachy and pedantic. Its heavy doses of environmental motifs and occasional sloganeering frequently detracted from the songs’ subtle and lush arrangements. Sure we’ve all done our part to fuck up Mother Earth – Funkadelic already told us that – but the album’s steady stream of National Geographic imagery was at times too obvious and humorless for its own good. Despite the band’s best intentions, too often the album played like an insipid lecture about nature’s startling beauty and its razor-thin fragility. And please remember to recycle.

Upper Air marks a subtle step forward for the band. While Bowerbirds again incorporate heartstring-grabbing melodies, the album branches out to encompass themes that were only hinted at throughout Dark Horse. The blend of folk and Americana first explored on that debut effort is further refined here, with Upper Air sounding a bit less lo-fi and more polished than its predecessor. Several songs begin with a simple acoustic guitar before other instruments are gently added; the guitar strum of opener “House of Diamonds” is eventually supported by understated keyboards and strings, while hushed piano lines are used to great effect on “Northern Lights.” The instrumentation is interwoven wonderfully throughout, with Beth Tacular’s accordion propelling “Teeth” and “Beneath Your Tree” along, at least as much as an accordion can propel anything. Phil Moore’s vocals are similarly evocative; frequently reminiscent of Andrew Bird, he sings unobtrusively and gives the instrumentation room to breathe and sometimes wander. Moore’s vocal takes here should eliminate any further comparisons to folkie weirdo Devendra Banhart; Moore’s vocals are far more direct and contain none of Banhart’s eccentricities or pretentions, and the album is better for it.

While the band hasn’t entirely abandoned the lyrical obsessions of Dark Horse – the song titles and album artwork alone dispel any such thoughts – Upper Air comes across as more introspective and less tree-huggingly maudlin, with a focus on life’s little dramas, disappointments and joys. A few songs could even be interpreted as unabashed love songs to an actual person and not a tree, rainbow or mountain stream. “Northern Lights” and “Ghost Life” are romantic without being dainty, a precarious balancing act the band successfully walks for most of the album. Though the album’s tone is usually one of hope and contentment – “Chimes” is perhaps the best example – hints of mental distress surfaces in several songs, whether it’s the “mind…wound so tightly” of “Bright Future” or Moore’s assertion that “my conscience is an avalanche” in “Crooked Lust.” The album likewise closes on a somber note, with the dirge-like “This Day” sounding both foreboding and funereal, a far cry from the measured optimism of most of the album’s other songs.

Part of Bowerbirds’ charm on Upper Air is that the band recalls various artists without sounding derivative, whether it’s the Calexico-flavored opening to “Beneath Your Tree” or the vocal harmonies in “Bright Future,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Midlake or, if you’re really, really desperate, CSNY album. The frequent comparisons to groups like Lavender Diamond and Vetiver are decent starting points, though Upper Air’s songs are closer to the Americana of Iron and Wine or The Handsome Family, mostly minus that group’s morbid sense of humor. Though it’s tempting to view the songs on Upper Air as little more than odes to nature or as a continuation of Dark Horse, such an approach sells the album a little short. With crafted and textured arrangements that never sound tedious or over-produced, Upper Air finds the band moving beyond Dark Horse’s confines in favor of something that is both musically and lyrically more complex and consistent.

by Eric Dennis

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