Rustic wholesomeness is not something automatically associable with professional musicians. With the hedonistic excesses of groups from The Stooges to Kings of Leon, the collective consciousness has long branded musical artists as over-the-top, ostentatious and people to whose party you’d love to get an invite .
Of course, for every culture there’s a counterculture, and the aforementioned rustic charm is flooding the music scene at the moment. In an era where stadium-filling bands are at a premium, the quieter, more reserved artists have begun to permeate the mainstream, whether in the form of pasty teenage grinner Ed Sheeran or the beardily earnest James Vincent McMorrow.
Midlake, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Iron & Wine and many others have scooped up listeners by the houseful of late, their humble tales of rural living and farmhand simplicity appealing to the closeted luddite sensibilities of an audience daily bombarded by iPhones and tablet computers. Secretly, many yearn for simpler times. Whether you do or don’t want to find them, you could do far worse than listening to Bowerbirds.
The North Carolinan three-piece’s new record The Clearing, their second LP release on the Dead Oceans label, possesses as much winsome allure as any of their genre colleagues’ output. Characterised by a trio of skilled singers – Philip Moore, Beth Tacular and Matt Paulson – Bowerbirds’ music is certainly classifiable as indie folk, but it lacks the soporific fragility that bands under that genre banner so often employ, mistaking it for emotional depth.
What Bowerbirds also lack is timidity. They’re unafraid to add power, usually through thumping percussion, to even their softer tracks; unafraid to incorporate the electric into what’s normally an acoustic-only sphere; unafraid to use any instrument or sound in search of a memorable melody.
The Clearing’s opening two tracks highlight the effectiveness of this approach. Opener ‘Tuck the Darkness In’ builds to a cacophonous finale, thudding drums and three-part vocals lifting what begins as a swaying pop-folk number into a foot-stomper that Local Natives would be proud of. ‘In The Yard’ is more brash, Beth Tacular’s strong alto vocals holding their own alongside a percussive riff and an insistent bassline.
‘Tuck The Darkness In’ uses a vibraphone, ‘In The Yard’ a fuzzy 8-bit keyboard sound – not exactly standard folk fare. Indeed, the more you listen to it, the more The Clearing reveals itself as different. Standout ‘Hush’ starts with a psalm-like vocal opening, harmonies reverberating around the song like voices inside a church. Yet where other acts would’ve been satisfied with one sound, Bowerbirds use three or four. Warming into a piano-led verse, then ebbing back, then shifting into a downright funky chorus, the album’s best track glides between gears so smoothly as to make the transitions seem natural: no mean feat.
Not every track meets these high standards – ‘Overcome With Light’ is more straightforward folk (slightly too much so), and ‘This Year’ suffers from slightly contrived lyricism – but in the main The Clearing explores and employs an array of impressive styles, each delivered with the same honesty and quality.
Closer ‘Now We Hurry On’ is a strangely sombre finale to what’s a largely upifting record, climbing to and falling away from a sweet acoustic core, and possessing some lovely, if maudlin, lyrics: “We thought we’d have forever/And now we hurry on”. Yet it also epitomises the excellence of The Clearing, combining some beautiful harmonies with slightly eccentric instrument selection – a harmonium, an egg-shaker, claps – and sprinkling the whole thing with an inventive inspiration which carries the track along.
They may not have the name recognition of other bands in their field, but Bowerbirds are sure to benefit from the musical upswell of wholesome, listenable, honest folk bands. Yet their creative approach, fresh ideas and most importantly the quality of their music is sure to propel the trio beyond many of their competitors and onto bigger things. A grower, and a gem.