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The Wooden Birds - Two Matchsticks

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Artist: The Wooden Birds

Album: Two Matchsticks

Label: Barsuk

Review date: Aug. 4, 2011

Though the waters will be muddied by the end, let’s begin by simply stating that The Wooden Birds’ second album, Two Matchsticks is quite enjoyable. After all, the band is a quasi-continuation of American Analog Set, one of the finest indie-rock groups of the 1990s. Andrew Kenny, the primary songwriter and vocalist in both acts, has an expressive voice that is compelling and expansive without being forceful; he has an ear for creating memorable melodies and the ability to convey emotion without becoming cliché or maudlin. These are the hallmarks of a great songwriter: catchy without ever being stock and unique without ever falling into obscurantism.

Two Matchsticks is of course not an American Analog Set album. While Kenny may still steer the sound, AmAnSet had a heft, an aesthetic forcefulness, that is absent from The Wooden Birds’ compositions. They’re more airy and less commanding. In a way this is good, as the band can branch out a bit and find its own way without being beholden to the enduring beat and drone.

Yet, it’s difficult to fully enjoy The Wooden Birds on the band’s own terms, mostly because American Analog Set carved out such a distinct sound — that droning Velvet Underground farfisa, that snare drum, the vibraphone and Kenny’s calming delivery. The unpretentious pop of Two Matchsticks could surely thrive on its own merits, but the density of AmAnSet’s sound is always there in the background begging for comparison.

Being in a successful band with a distinct sound is like being typecast in a role. Jeremy Davies (Lost, Solaris) is always going to play the befuddled outsider. He’s a good actor, and he can play other roles, but even his Harlan County pot dealer on Justified had that hurt, eccentric quality to it. Besides the fact that he doesn’t look the part, imagining him as a Leading Man in a Hollywood film leads to cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t work right with the conventions, and because we’ve been trained in the conventions, it would leave a lot of people mildly to greatly unfulfilled.

Something similar is going on with The Wooden Birds. Hearing Kenny’s voice and songcraft in such an uncomplicated setting is disorienting, even if the music is anything but. Album after album from AmAnSet created certain expectations from Kenny’s voice, and when those miscalculated expectations aren’t met — despite the high-quality nature of the album — it can create feelings of vague glumness. Maybe an artist in a band has to be like Bryan Cranston, following up Malcolm in the Middle with Breaking Bad, radically departing from the former role as suburban sitcom dad. It’s obviously easier for actors. In a band, the music songwriters create is an extension of themselves, and there is (or should be) some kind of truth to that. Experimenting for experimenting’s sake usually obscures that truth. There are perhaps ways to defy expectations and still capture that truth about oneself, though that’s not present in Two Matchsticks. Holding that against The Wooden Birds is certainly unfair in many ways, but still must be accounted for.

By Andrew Beckerman

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