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Songed Birds: Hymns for a Dark Horse

July 25, 2008
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New I and the Bird over at the excellent Hawk Owl’s Nest.

My two previous editions of Songed Birds dealt with established artists. Beck, who just released his 8th studio album last week, hardly needs any introduction, and the Decemberists, while less well-known, have been indie darlings for some time. But today I have the distinct pleasure of introducing not only a band poised to blaze a trail through the rock underground in the very near future, but they’re local folks besides. Oh, and they’re making some great music that birders in particular, of all people, may be very interested to hear.

Raleigh’s own Bowerbirds have hit the ball out of the park on their first try with their 2007 release Hymns for a Dark Horse. I know, there’s not bird in the title like in my previous installments. But in a big way, this is by far the most bird-related album I’ve looked at yet. I mean, check out the cover art, those are clearly the wings of an Anhinga slapped on there for everyone to see. We’re clearly dealing with something a bit different here. And there’s a good reason for that. Phil Moore, Bowerbirds’ front man, had a job tracking birds for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in western NC. He and girlfriend, artist Beth Tacular, started the band as a creative outlet while deep in the woods. And that time off the beaten track informed the environmental ethos that pervades this album from beginning to end, which is part of what makes it so interesting.

The Bowerbirds are part of the new wave of nu-folk, or freak folk bands that have sprung up in the last few years. The music is sparse, just guitar, bass drum, and fiddle or accordion, and delightfully lo-fi, but it’s the lyrics that stand out. Moore clearly loves birds, and they’re a recurring theme in nearly every track on the album. From the opening line of the brilliant “In Our Talons” And the warbler sings deet-deet-deet-deet-deet-deet-deet-deet-deet… to an song titled “The Marbled Godwit” (a brilliantly poetic species name when you think about it) about the dangers of commercialization, and all down the tracklist, birds are prominent. The Bowerbirds’ environmental idealism can come off a little heavy-handed at times, but the music is still exceptionally listenable. In fact, I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since I got it.

And this is where I go off the path for just a bit. The one thing that all of us birders know is the important way birds can act as a gatekeeper towards a greater environmental consciousness. They’re everywere, they get us outside, and there’s a great poetry in them; their flight, their epic migrations, their lives in general, that is impossible to miss, even if not all of us are capable of putting such feelings into words as deftly as we would like. Moore succeeds here above all. It’s clear the message that the Bowerbirds are trying to impart on their listeners, and it’s a broad and heavy one at its core. But introduced through the shade of birds and love of the outdoors, it becomes tangible, because to be amazed by them is such a universal experience. This shared involvement just makes the Bowerbirds’ moral resonate that much more. It’s inspiring, and darn good music besides.

Alright, so you can tell I’m pretty excited about this record. But where can you find it? It’s not easy, but you can get it through iTunes like I did or from their website. But check them out right now at their Myspace page, where you can hear some of the songs I mentioned in this post. May I suggest “In Our Talons”, it’s lovely. They’re also touring, making a swing through the northeast right now playing relatively intimate venues, which is really the only way to see them. I’m a little ticked I’ll be out of town when they return home to Chapel Hill, but so it goes.

So go listen, enjoy, etc…

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2 Comments
  1. Jason permalink
    July 25, 2008 9:20 am

    Coincidentally, profiled in today’s Boston Globe. I might actually have to check them out now.

  2. July 25, 2008 12:10 pm

    They’re well worth your time. An excellent band.

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