“This day is no special day / This day will see no placards given / This day will see no severed limbs,” sings Phil Moore in “This Day,” the final song of the Bowerbirds’ second full-length. It’s a stark statement of the ordinary, a setting of rigid natural boundaries, and yet, as the song progresses, it celebrates transcendence in the quotidian. Its simple, rustic arrangements of strummed guitar and accordion break to erupt into otherworldly harmonies. Its matter-of-fact natural imagery turns somehow into allegory for memory, the persistence of love, the rejection of the material and the embrace of the spiritual. If there is sometimes a hint of the backwoods hymnal in the Bowerbirds’ music, it is only partly because of their rustic gospel influences. It is also because they seem certain of larger currents running through mundane life.
Like the Bowerbirds first full-length, 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse, Upper Air sounds deceptively sparse, even plain, on first listen. Melodies are curiously slippery, glancing, hard to hold onto. Mostly sung by Moore, with accordionist Beth Tacula occasionally taking a turn, these songs move forward in flutters and stops. Strums of guitar and occasional, peripheral percussion set a tempo, but the words come at their own pace, bunched in flurries of sudden imagery, then punctuated by stops. “You are free from the greed of your culture / you are free from the lust for the luster / Of the diamond houses in the cities’ cluster,” Moore sings in the anti-materialist “House of Diamonds,” in a rapid barrage of ideas and wordplay, but then he takes a long pause before finishing, “from your own ego.” Sly little choruses sidle into these tunes, so self-effacing that they sink into the texture of the songs, heralded only by the onset of tight harmonies. These are carefully modulated compositions, their modest surges in volume and density all the more invigorating because of the gentleness of the surrounding territory.
Still, these low-key arrangements take on weight and depth over time. With repeated listens, the minor key shadings, the arresting crescendos, the sweeping bursts of strings and accordion begin to emerge. If the lyrics show a glimpse of spirituality through the lens of trees, clouds, storms and other natural phenomenon, so also do the songs hint at transcendence through the barest country folk rudiments. “Ghost Life,” like “This Day,” bumps along on a strum and a croon, an unvarnished backwoods ramble, until it suddenly erupts into slow-building, choral harmonies. “Love, shapeless love, wild tireless love, fast in the breeze, ghostly white,” sings Moore, against a rolling crescendo and wordless vocal embellishments. The music, like its subject matter, seems to extend beyond and permeate through any sort of rationally defined boundaries.
You might ask for a little more structure from these songs, a little more of the reckless rhythmic motion of “Beneath Your Tree,” for instance, where Bowerbirds sound a bit like Calexico. A stronger verse/chorus foundation might make the songs more instantly accessible and easier to remember. But by making it easier to access, Bowerbirds might well be depriving listeners of the chance to make their own way, to wander in the desert a little even. It’s only by working at it that we can expect to find transcendence in what first seemed to be rather plain.