Bowerbirds – Upper Air

[Dead Oceans; 2009]

There’s a sort of indescribable quality about Bowerbirds’ music that I can’t quite put a definite description on. It’s warming and charming and usually inviting in tone but it also carries a hostility about it, a sort of swagger that seems to be asking you why you are bothering listening to it in the first place – take “Northern Lights” as a perfect lyrical example: “I don’t need from you a waterfall of careless praise”. It’s memorable but simultaneously vague, leading to an odd appreciation for it. As can be seen from the rating issued by myself, I do enjoy Upper Air but when I’m listening to it I feel like I’m missing something. I listen more intently but I can’t penetrate the surface satisfyingly.

With a guitar-drums-accordion lineup, Bowerbirds have established a sound for themselves. Small actions make for big gestures and it works to make the music sound full and nourished. Phil Moore’s guitar playing fills the air but doesn’t shove out the other instruments, instead it seeps them in for greater emphasis of his melodies. The bass drum that leads “Silver Clouds” into it instrumental ending is such a simple addition but it gives the track a sensational sense of momentum. Elsewhere, the rumbling quake that runs through “Chimes” does well to add to the unease until the drums once again kick into shape and send the track forward. The chimes themselves actually sound on the following track, “Bright Future” which has a contrasting atmosphere, sounding more like that fuzzy feeling of optimism one gets when you wake up to a gorgeous sunrise and birds singing outside.

But the warmth comes from the melodies also. The delectable centrepiece “Ghost Life” bounces towards an almost jovial and triumphant wordless chorus that sounds even better when it finds its way back after a slowed middle section. At first when they go on repeating it second time round you think they might be milking the catchiest melody here but it feels earns when you familiarise yourself with the cohesive surrounding songs.

I suppose one of the reasons for not being able to pin down a description of the content on Upper Air is partly due to Moore’s subjective and casually suggestive lyrics. Phrases get caught in your memory before whole verses as you give a minute to try and figure out what kind of picture he’s painting. His first lyrics on the album are “One morning you wake to find/ You are shackled to your bed/ And bound and gagged/ Oh my, what a predicament.” It’s a curious scene to set let alone begin with and the more I think about it, the deeper a possible meaning I put to it when he concludes telling the burdened character that they “are free.” With turns of phrases not too dissimilar to the likes of Andrew Bird, he weaves lyrics that benefit well from a little consideration.

One of the defining qualities of Upper Air is its ambiguity, which works both for it and against it. While we do get an individualistic almost sinister tone put into the tracks which does well to differentiate it from other similar setups as well as juxtapose the brighter moments on thealbum, that opaque shield it creates might be too thick for some to digest or want to look under. Or perhaps the trick is to look over it instead of under. That way, the sky’s the limit.