I don’t know what’s more difficult: trying to describe emotionally visceral music, or trying not to gush about said music through this review. Like the specific avian creatures from which Beth Tacular and Phil Moore take their name, this trio (with the addition of Mark Paulson on the album, Matt Damron on tour) has created an intricate and seductive atmosphere to entice you into an intimate setting. Intimacy is the key to Upper Air, the sophomore album from North Carolina’s Bowerbirds. Listening to the new songs, you feel as if you are furtively spying on something private, a delicate mating ritual, like you’re actually watching the building of a bower. Because the truth is, once you’ve heard Upper Air, there’s no resisting its pull. I just doubt that Beth and Phil have enough room in their Airstream trailer for all of us.
There are about as many touchstones to the music of Bowerbirds as there are indie folk bands. You’re bound to see most of them pop up again and again, yet none seem to do the band justice. Upper Air immediately lures you in with “House of Diamonds,” a gorgeous anthem with acoustic guitar, piano and a plaintive violin, yet the most alluring aspect of it is the vocal interplay of Moore and Tacular, declaring, “You are already free.” Maybe it’s the accordion, or the male / female vocal weave, or possibly even the immediacy of songs like “Teeth” and “Chimes,” especially given the organs and percussion, but there are times when Bowerbirds are like the woodsy cousins to Arcade Fire. I’m certainly not the first to make that connection, but once you’ve heard these two songs in particular, it’s hard to deny.
One of the more attractive aspects of the music of Bowerbirds is the accessibility of melody. When Moore plays his lone guitar chords through the first part of the amazing track, “Silver Clouds,” you get the distinct feeling that this song couldn’t be new, that it must have been plucked from some long ago ethereal location. When the other instruments kick in with only a minute or so left to play, you start to understand that Bowerbirds are simply otherworldly. “Ghost Life” is another standout, having “oh’s” making words completely unnecessary in one of the more affecting choruses on the album. At times, one can understand the usual comparisons to freak folk by the end of this track, as there are moments that can recall Animal Collective, but Bowerbirds easily surpass such inept tags.
It’s hard not to think that Neil Young doesn’t inhabit “Northern Lights” in some way. The gentle melody that opens the song sounds as if it were taken directly from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Yet, when you try to match it up with a particular song comparison, you find yourself stymied and wonder how a band could create a new song from the late ’60s. Intricate picking and handclaps replace strums in “Crooked Lust,” but, as in most of the other songs, the incredibly arranged music is the perfect counterpoint to Moore’s earnest vocals. I’d assume that even in a concert setting, surrounded by hundreds of people, it would sound to each individual that Moore was singing exclusively for him or her. “This Day” ends the album in a way that can only be described as perfect. It’s somewhat of a campfire prayer, a lullaby before drifting off to sleep in a natural setting.
And thus, it’s all part of the ritual. By the time “This Day” rolls around, you subconsciously realize that Bowerbirds have seduced you into their musical den and romanced you with song. The varied acoustic instruments they play so magically transport you into a natural and romantic world outside of time while the occasional link to modern indie rock grounds you in the now. The intertwining voices of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, however, are the ultimate catapult. As they weave in and out of each other, then finally come together in sweet harmony, you are vaulted headlong and carefree into the Upper Air. I’m sure that’s how they came up with the title.