Beth Tacular, (Accordion, Bass Drum, Backing Vocals), Phil Moore, (Lead Vocals, Guitar, Tambourine), Mark Paulson (Violin, Pedal Keyboard, Bass Drum, Backing Vocals), are the three members of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Bowerbirds, a band that has crafted a brilliant album which could be called folk, but such a classification falls well short of truly giving justice to what they sound like. When listening to Hymns For A Dark Horse you get the feeling that these songs are physical objects as much as they are ephemeral waves of vibrations. Filled with ideas, imagery and metaphors in the lyrics, melodies, themes and rhythms in the instrumentation, songs seem so bursting with life that they are something you experience, something that you can walk around, prodding and peering at.The band’s musical style doesn’t change much during the album, the most constant and distinctive aspect of their sound is a big bass drum, which serves as main percussion. It’s deep booming is often interspersed with the drumstick clacking off the rim of the instrument, and that rumble-clack is a re-assuring presence throughout most of the songs. The acoustic guitar often leads the way with an unhurried mix of folk picking and strumming, with the nylon strings audible and a bass sometimes drops by to add some very subtle low end. There is also some nice variety with violin, accordion, piano, tinkling bells and tambourine mixing and matching, or going it alone with the drum and guitar. Some lovely backing vocals from Ms Tacular and Mr Paulson join in on a few tracks, such as ‘Dark Horse’, ‘My Oldest Memory’ and ‘Bur Oak’.The melodic sensibility of the band roams from East European folk to, well, American folk, but it’s not about how widely influenced they are, there is just something utterly transporting about how they craft and develop melody. With the descending accordion melancholy on ‘My Oldest Memory’, the flitting up and down vocal ‘deets’ on ‘In Our Talons’, the old-timey rustic and rhythmic ‘Bur Oak’, the vocal, accordion and guitar symbiosis on ‘The Ticonderoga’, being the most beguiling twirls and flows to be found on the album. Phil Moore’s voice, (which is strikingly similar to Irishman Fionn Regan’s), can sometimes sound strange, a mannered top-and-back of the mouth delivery, but he can stretch out and amplify the brilliance of a melody line when he chooses to, the chorus of ‘Olive Hearts’, the last verse in ‘Slow Down’ and the line ‘You’re the kindling, still/That burns below my heeaaaaaart’ with it’s sweetly aching drawn out last word, in ‘Hooves’, are just three examples of this.The band self-recorded this album, which is quite stunning when you actually consider the clarity of sound; my favourite song of the whole album is ‘Human Hands’, and it’s almost completely down to the little intricacies in the decisions they made while recording. From the way the nylon strings of the guitar are so audible, a small amount of buzz from a string not being completely held down, to the out of tune piano, to the clunk of a foot releasing the sustain pedal of the piano as the last thing you hear before the next song begins, all help to ground the music to these individuals and their physical use of the instruments. The album sounds like people playing in a room together, clear when needed and muffled when needed, seemingly always with a grip on what they want to filter through to the listener.As for the lyrics, well, as I have said, they are bursting with life. Fantasy and narrating from an animal’s perspective, two of many themes carried throughout the album, can be found in ‘Hooves’, ‘We’re back to when I was born on a full moon/I nearly split my mama in two’ is some shocking, quite inhuman, imagery, the song goes on in the perspective of a horse/foal and finding the love and drive from your nearest and dearest when you most need it. Other tracks like this include ‘In Our Talons’, ‘Slow Down’, ‘The Ticonderoga’, and ‘The Marbled Godwit’. ‘The Marbled Godwit’ is packed with meaning in every line, the first verse and run through of the chorus is from the perspective of the bird flying home from across the sea. With the chorus the most prominent theme of the album comes through, human civilization encroaching upon nature, ‘Bound to your oil machines…Hoarding the land and sea…Stolen through violent means’. The next verse is from the perspective of a fisherman at sea in his boat, he realizes how small he is in comparison to the sea and therefore nature itself, ‘The waves do toss this worthy vessel/Impress upon my tiny brain’, and he goes on to note how the sea (nature) ‘talks in a hush/A little disappointed’. The nail in the coffin comes with the line, ‘Death, when all want masquerades as need’, at the end of the chorus, the greed and heedlessness of mankind contained in one line. This song is the best developed look at this theme, we get perfectly fine variations on this earlier, with ‘In Our Talons’ and ‘Human Hands’, but this song is perfectly balanced in the lyrics, well placed in the middle of the album, and has a lovely violin playing throughout.There are songs that take a turn for the personal, ‘Bur Oak’ is about finding inspiration for writing, the lyrics referencing all sorts of folk and fantasy related things, ‘Olive Hearts’ has a narrator starting out in melancholic introspection, but soon being reeled in by a friend to go to a party, where the ‘sequined girls’ have their ‘skirts hemmed high’, and the ‘mannered men’ have ‘smoke screened eyes’, the olive hearts in question being the garnish for martinis. ‘Dark Horse’ shows us a person preparing for the onset of winter, both physically and mentally, ‘He sang, “you, my friend, are alone, alone”… And we split our cords of oak/And we keep this wood stove burning/While the bitter winds are blowing’. But there is the sense that the narrator sees this oncoming cold as natural, something that can’t be stopped, only endured, and that there is nothing wrong with that, ‘We stow our words in the cellar/So we never lose hope’. The extra songs added on to this re-issue continue in a similar vein to the rest of the album, ‘Le Denigracion’ speaks of the denigration men suffer in war, ‘And each one has eyes in the honest places/But will turn wonder into weeds’, ‘Matchstick Maker’ is a quite traditional folk song, with the narrator leaving behind some misdeed, a wonderful line ‘Took a job in the city/Making matchsticks to start other men’s fires’, showcases the lyrical cynicism that has been there throughout the album.The lyrics all interlock on this album, and while they are strong and interesting on a song by song basis, the album does feel holistic, every theme strengthened, every song knitted, and the album glitters brilliantly.90%LinksBowerbirds [myspace] [band site]