In their original incarnation, Bowerbirds were a duo consisting of guitarist and principal songwriter Phil Moore and accomplished painter Beth Tacular (great name) assuming accordion and percussion duties. Before the recording of their debut album, Hymns For A Dark Horse, they were joined by Mark Paulson who has added vital instrumental layering to their compositions, bringing piano, violin and added percussion to the band. This album was originally released in 2007 on Burly Time Records but is given a rerun this August with added tracks by the Jagjaguar affiliate Dead Oceans. Currently on tour with Bon Iver, Bowerbirds continue the gentle wave of grass-roots American folk that is warming hearts across the globe.
An unassuming Hooves nudges this record into the light as it emerges quiet and lonely. The accordion provides glimmers of warmth until the multiple vocals arrive for the chorus. All these elements are exploited to greater effect on the following track. In Our Talons assumes a brisker pace with homemade drums click-clacking in the distant background and the rising voices lifting the song to its climax of "No, you're not alone." Dark Horse's violins soar with gentle melancholic sunshine like kind words spoken to a broken heart.
It's the group harmonies that provide the essential ingredient on this album. Moore's solo vocals have an easy croon to them but it's when he is joined by what sounds like more than 2 more voices that each song is lifted from simple singer/songwriter outpourings to majestic pieces of heartfelt beauty. Musically each song relies on two main factors, the whispering accordion that faithfully accompanies each vocal journey, and secondly it's the DIY drum beats that follow behind. As if being played with sticks on the kitchen table, this makeshift beat provides the record with its earthy rawness and as they seem to come from way back in the distance they provide a hollow element to the sound. The inevitable reaction that takes place when this emptiness is filled by the gathering vocal harmonies is the ultimate success of the record.
The comparisons to the aforementioned Bon Iver come not simply through the record company they are both associated with, but from an obvious ethos that surrounds the music they create and the life they live outside of this music. Moore and Tacular live in an Airstream trailer on a quiet plot of land on the outskirts of Raleigh in North Carolina and it's this sort of organic, rural and simple way of life that permeates every second of this record. It informs its unpretentious wishes and helps deliver on its honest expression. There are differences of course: Bon Iver aims to conjure a greater sense of loneliness and does it with dazzling effect. Hymns isn't so dazzling and Moore's voice lacks the captivation of Justin Vernon's and when left alone for too long can slip into a mediocre folk sound. Album closer Matchstick Maker illustrates this tendency to tread water. With no obvious centre to the song it can drift along in an unfocused haze as if guided by Adem. But thankfully for us this seldom happens and the result is a work of real beauty. Jagjaguar and it's affiliated labels are providing the backbone to this years top releases and while Bowerbirds may not leap from the pile like some of the others, it resides near the top of the heap as a band clearly in love with their craft.