Andrew Kenny’s former band, The American Analog Set, had a name that evoked old-fashioned, vintage techniques. In many respects, the group’s warm, organic dream pop sound fit perfectly under this nomenclature, from their rich, tube amplifier drones to their synthesizers, which, too, had a vintage glow. With new band The Wooden Birds, Kenny, along with Ola Podrida’s David Wingo, Leslie Sisson and Lymbic System’s Michael Bell, creates a sound that too seems somewhat tied to the imagery in their name. It’s not that Wooden Birds literally sound like oaken sparrows, of course, but rather in what they represent. Their songs are rustic, acoustic, woodsy. There’s an old-time sensibility about them, a refreshing simplicity. In fact, they’re downright charming.
In spite of the group’s tendency to opt for stripped-down, unfussy arrangements, Kenny’s songwriting style is largely reminiscent of that in his American Analog Set days. The songs are melodic and urgent, with upbeat momentum and a directness that many indie folk artists tend to forgo. Kenny writes pop songs, after all, and damn good ones. But Kenny also carries over some of the familiar techniques from his AmAnSet days—soft vocals, palm-muted guitar and bass riffs, simple yet stunning harmonies. That said, Magnolia, The Wooden Birds’ debut album, marks an interesting new direction for Kenny, one that finds him and his collaborators stepping more toward the rural strums of Iron & Wine, albeit with structures that are more indie rock than indie folk, just dressed up a bit differently.
“False Alarm” is a perfect example of how much The Wooden Birds accomplish with such a minimal conceit—the verse is only two chords, just guitar, bass and basic percussion, yet the chorus reveals a stunning transition, with Kenny beautifully singing “baby who could blame us if we’re wrong.” “The Other One” follows a similar structure, but reveals a bit more atmospheric depth, with rich guitar leads ringing out over faint organ accompaniment. “Sugar” is a mesmerizing standout, with Kenny’s “oh-oh-oh” vocal providing a catchy hook over gentle plucks of guitar. Yet even when Kenny unleashes his most misanthropic vocal in “Choke,” singing “with his hand on the small of your back/ I hope you choke,” he sounds serene and lovely. It’s quite a gift.
The rich, gentle guitar scratch on Magnolia is soothing and gorgeous, and the album as a whole is a testament to how good an indie folk record can be when built from such a simple framework. I can say how wonderful Kenny’s talent is for combining the subtlest of elements. Or I can say that everything here sounds organic and alive, every part working together in perfect harmony. And that’s all true. But the best compliment I can pay to Wooden Birds is to say that Magnolia sounds fantastic at any time, under any circumstance, in any medium.
MP3: “False Alarm”
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.