Intended as a ‘modern folk concept album’, David Rotheray’s The Life of Birds pulls from all corners of Britain and Ireland to create a splendid ornithological affair, representative not just of modern folk, but also of the under acknowledged talent these shores have to offer.
Born in Hull in 1963, Rotheray is best known as the lead guitarist of The Beautiful South, who after ten studio albums and seventeen years, called it a day in 2008. Together with figurehead Paul Heaton he wrote much of the group’s material; their signature sound is evident on The Life of Birds, which echoes their charm and kitchen sink wisdom. Folk troupe Homespun, whom Rotheray played with until their demise in 2003, are also an influence; their third and final album Short Stories From East Yorkshire is the first example of Rotheray collaborating with a set of guest vocalists, as he does here. Although this is the first time he has released under his own name, The Life of Birds is the result of decades of hard work in the music industry, and the experience he’s gained has certainly paid off; grounded and secure in its goals, his debut is cherishable, profound and laden with talent.
While Rotheray is responsible for the arrangement, production and penmanship of the album, ten additional musicians have contributed their lungs to the record, each adding their own direction and style. Of those, Eliza Carthy is the most notable; born in North Yorkshire to Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, her voice is seeped in the traditional folk music that surrounded her during her childhood, and her own career has become a successful reflection of the genre. Other established folk singers to contribute include Devon’s Jim Causley, Cabra’s Eleanor McEvoy and Cork’s Camille O’Sullivan; Derbyshire’s Bella Hardy, Sheffield’s Nat Johnson and Athy’s Jack L all represent the comparatively ‘new’ movement, and put their more popular peers to shame.
What then, of the songs? With a cast this strong, set to a score penned by a man crucial to the last two decades of music, it’s hard to imagine anything less resounding.
As soon as I saw Johnson has contributed to The Life of Birds, I knew ‘Flying Lessons’ would be a cause for celebration: her silky vocals, similar to Aimee Mann, compliment Rotheray’s writing style perfectly and are at once familiar and comforting. Elsewhere Eliza Carthy confirms her superiority with ‘The Road to the South’ and ‘Cover Your Garden Over’, Bella Hardy’s ‘Living Before the War’ is sublime, and Alisdair Roberts presents a twisted fable with ‘Draughty Old Fortress’. Causley’s jolly, deep vocals wrap around The Life of Birds with ‘The Sparrow, The Thrush & The Nightingale’ parts one and two, and justify the concept alongside Kathryn Williams’s ‘Crows, Ravens & Rooks’.
One of the few criticisms I have of the release is that sometimes the tracks are a bit cabaret and over-pronounced; the solemnity of Jack L on ‘The Best Excuse in the World’ doesn’t sit well with the remainder, and ‘The Digital Cuckoo’ delves too deeply into melodrama to be taken seriously – your digital clock has broken. Is it really that much of a problem? Go and get a new one.
However, these two songs aside, The Life of Birds is stupendously perfect, utterly complete and gorgeously concise in its love for folk, birds and music in general. You could do far, far worse than buy this as an introduction to the category, and it suggests great things to come from Rotheray.