Bowerbirds’ avian namesake, begs one to explore the possibility that some biological analogy can explain their music. At the risk of sounding cliché, let’s take the plunge. The family Ptilonorhynchidae are best known for their polygamous mating habits centered around shelters that are like Victorian manors compared to your average bungalow nests. Bowerbirds strictly divide sexual labor. Males spend most of their lives building elaborate bowers and decorate them with colorful bits of nature like leaves and shells to impress females who, in turn, expend all their mortal energy toward child-rearing. The bowerbird exhibits some the most complex social behavior of non-human animals, and the size of their dwellings relative to their bodies put them high in the ranking of animals with the largest extended phenotype. Beavers, incidentally are second only to humans in this classification.
So where’s the linkage? It’s definitely not the polygamy. Bowerbirds’ principle members, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, have been through thick and thin and back again, only to find themselves once more enraptured with each other. From “Walk the Furrows” – “Keep the joy. Keep the quiet. No you’re not shy. You have that fire, smoldering.” The Clearing continues the central themes of the previous two albums; reverence for nature, the brooding intensity of countryside love, and an inexplicable grace of man’s place within his mind’s wilderness. Perhaps that’s the connection. The immense care with which a bowerbird builds his nest to care for his mate, how he shapes nature as a medium to express the relationship. A metaphorical act of devotion, though that isn’t how it plays out in nature.
Previous albums, on the whole, have been more demur and reserved than The Clearing. Bowerbirds’ third LP find the group striving beyond the guitar + voice Americana standard. “Walk the Furrows” best achieves that venture by not overdoing it. Opening with a sharp jaunting guitar pluck, the song eases then rises to meet violins, cello, bells and more vocal accoutrement. The added production on other songs like “In the Yard” distracts from the album’s theme. But “In the Yard” and “Brave World” stretch the album and the band into more tones and unexplored territory. They and songs that feature Tacular’s voice framing the melody give the album a nice narrative tempo that, perhaps intentionally, never quite resolves. “There is a pull between our hearts, love. There is an empty open mind.”
I first started listening to the Bowerbirds in college and on a long road trip West. Their music needs immersion, and I imagine it might be hard to enjoy as much hearing live for the first time. Partially that’s a symptom of amplifying acoustic instruments. Even with the constraints of a club setting, their recent show at The Parish in Austin was sublime and transcendent, evoking, for me, the sense of expanse and anticipation of driving through nothingness. I was skeptical at first that the same closeness and immediacy of Bowerbirds’ albums would translate live. The songs off the new album play exceptionally well live, giving the group the bigger sound and variability mentioned above. Well composed folk music is immersive and gives you this visceral experience of the countryside, and the Bowerbirds live set tinges that feeling with urgency ie. “Overcome With Light.”
The imagery associated with a clearing in the woods is a haven of peace and respite on a journey through the wilderness. A place to rest and gather spiritual and physical energy, nature’s pit stop if you will. The Clearing and it’s tour finds Bowerbirds catching their footing after a tumultuous spell, summoning the power to expand their sound and sojourn towards a modern and unique Americana.