A few seconds into “Tuck the Darkness In,” the first song on Bowerbirds’ third album The Clearing, the North Carolina indie folk outfit sound markedly different than on their first two albums. The elements are essentially the same – acoustic guitar, harmonized vocals, some sparse use of strings – but the rustic, gothic folk elements that once dominated their sound have been pushed aside in favor of something much bigger and more dramatic. It’s a subtle difference at first, a minor push into a more conventional style of indie rock, done with grace and care, and minimal pretense or gimmickry. But by the song’s cascading final swells, Bowerbirds sound more like Arcade Fire than they ever did before, as if to suggest that darkly idiosyncratic folk they did so well on Hymns For A Dark Horse and Upper Air is but a thing of the past.
This isn’t entirely true, of course. The Clearing most certainly finds Bowerbirds amplifying their art rock ambition, and doing so impressively via beautifully arranged and infectiously written songs like “In the Yard.” But those simpler folk elements that made their first two albums such a delight are still here, if presented more sparingly. “Walk the Furrows” is one such track evocative of a dark, rural America, a gorgeous chamber-folk highlight that still finds room to build and swell, but in subtler ways, with elegant touches of strings coloring in the sparse acoustic arrangement. Yet there are other moments, such as the stunning, flamenco-flavored “Stitch the Hem,” in which the band puts their louder, electric approach to even better use, losing no sense of identity while mining new and mesmerizing ground. Likewise, the interplay of piano and weeping guitars on “Brave World” creates a haunting, atmospheric feel that’s at once romantic and eerie.
The Clearing is a more polished affair for Bowerbirds, but while they’ve long proven themselves to excel at simpler, acoustic arrangements, this graduation toward legitimate rock songwriting suits them far better than they ever let on. Not that they overdo it, of course. Those moments of Arcade Fire grandeur only come around once or twice a side, but the sheer beauty and innovation of the group’s songs make The Clearing a delight up to the finish.
Stream: Bowerbirds – “In the Yard”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.