Bowerbirds, The Clearing
By Steve Slagg
March 28, 2012
Bowerbirds' Philip Moore and Beth Tacular have always been pretty off-the-grid, both literally and figuratively. Their two previous records of outsider folk had them occupied with their love for each other, nature and the interconnectedness of everything. For the last couple years, though, they've gone one step further, living in a trailer in the North Carolina woods while building a cabin with their own four hands. The Clearing, first and foremost, tells that story.
In the midst of their cabin dream, though, Moore and Tacular broke up, reunited, fought illness and injury, and toured like crazy. Maybe all that turmoil is what compelled them to change up their palette so radically, trading the sparse guitar-and-accordion formula of their previous records for closely-mic'd pianos, overdubbed mallet instruments and multi-layered vocals. Recorded partially in Bon Iver's Wisconsin studio, The Clearing is downright cinematic: The arrangements ebb and flow, lending weight and space to Moore and Tacular's retelling of their "disaster chapter."
That means the album has some of the band's most accessible moments to date. Menacing single "Tuck the Darkness In," with its chugging electric guitar rhythm and squealing string climax, earns every Andrew Bird comparison it will inevitably receive. And Beth Tacular's sweetly straightforward lead vocals on the stately "In the Yard" will likely win over some new fans. Elsewhere, though, "Stitch the Hem," with its off-kilter hand-clap-and-piano groove, and the gentler gamelan-like "Hush" both feature meandering melodies that bob and pitch like anything else in the band's catalog. Listeners have always had to meet Bowerbirds on their terms, and this record is no different.
Rather than a bid for success, then, Bowerbirds' new sound may be part of an attempt to situate their outsider worldview within a larger cultural context. Their previous records had a sort of blind hippie optimism: They came across as blissfully unaware of anyone who fell outside the light of their campfire. Here, they're tempered by personal turmoil and cultural disillusionment. "Brave World" may be the record's thesis statement: Over a piano-and-percussion breakbeat that gently evokes the dub-step movement, Moore quotes most of the first verse of Bob Dylan's song "With God On Our Side" (a bitter Vietnam-era American history lesson) before concluding Oh, brave world / how have you changed? / I'm still unsure. It's the first time Bowerbirds have challenged the status quo—and the first time their environmentalist dissidence hasn't felt like a take-it-or-leave-it quirk.
For the most part, though, The Clearing is concerned with the everyday, with folk music's smaller questions rather than its big ones: How do we spend our time? What do we do during the day? If "Brave World" is The Clearing's thesis, "In the Yard" is its soul. Over dusky electric guitar, simple piano chords and a muted kick-drum beat, Tacular describes her dream of building a house with Moore: With a hammer and a blade / and our four hands / here's what we made. Later in the song, Moore's voice joins hers as their dream becomes a reality, singing We have our black-haired babes / running free / through the woods. The in-joke that the "black-haired babes" are both dogs—one of whom was rescued and rehabilitated after being run over by the Bowerbirds tour bus—doesn't change a thing. In their own unique way, Tacular and Moore are working hard to build a home, a family and a belief system in the midst of a world that's done them no favors. Those are old concerns, but Bowerbirds makes them sound new.