Bowerbirds emerged in 2006 as a back-to-basics act in more than one way: The band's debut LP, Hymns for a Dark Horse, surveyed a stark loping acoustic sound, enriched by pretty harmonies and an old-fashioned, naturalistic vibe. On that album, the band rhapsodizes about the sweet song of leopard frogs down by "Bur Oak" and the subtle sonance of warblers and swaying trees on "In Our Talons," and calls for "Death to the civilized/Stolen through violent means" in "The Marbled Godwit." With Phil Moore's finger-picked guitar, girlfriend Beth Tacular's low accordion wail and some intermittent but understated added percussion, the two conjured the haunted soundscape of a disappearing world crushed beneath our rush for progress and creature comfort.
So it makes sense, then, that the band was forged during time the couple spent together in an abandoned schoolhouse amid the wildlife of rural South Carolina—while Moore was tracking the plaintive warbler for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, no less. The simplicity, quietude and beauty of their environs encouraged him to put his feelings into song, Moore says. Meanwhile, Tacular, originally a visual artist, borrowed an accordion and learned to accompany him. But while Bowerbirds was born there, its start had been percolating within Moore for a while—even if it meant the demise of Moore's old band, Ticonderoga.
"What most annoyed me about the music that I was writing [in Ticonderoga] was I just couldn't get myself to write about anything that I cared about. Or maybe it was that I was trying really hard to care about something that I hadn't cared about for a long time," Moore says. "I just couldn't express it, and I think that [Bowerbirds] was kind of an outlet for me to express it, even just to myself for the first time."
He did more than express these feelings—he began to live them. With money earned from the band's first tour, Moore and Tacular bought a trailer and a couple acres in the woods of North Carolina. They got a solar panel for power, and eventually they acquired an old log tobacco barn, which they disassembled and moved to their land, where they are currently rebuilding it by hand.
In between construction and frequent touring, Moore began work on the band's second album, Upper Air. But, already, he began to crave more musically. So the band added a drummer/violinist (ex-Ticonderoga mate Mark Paulson) and even went on tour with an upright bassist.
"I was playing the bass drum with my foot, and I was like, 'Maybe we should just get a real drummer so I don't have to feel like a circus act,'" he recalls.
There were other changes in store too—like in the studio: The band initially tried to record the new songs in the same unadorned, live manner of the first album, but were unsatisfied with the results.
"It sounded like crap," Moore confesses. "I just think the songs needed more places to go."
So he started tracking vocals and guitar, piecing together songs as he went along. He recorded some parts in an abandoned Pittsboro, North Carolina, label-making mill.
"Things evolved slowly, adding different instruments, just a matter of what felt good at the time," he explains.
The result is the more full-bodied sound of Upper Air. It's not The Decemberists, to be sure, but there's more shading and texture compared to the austere Hymns. Piano, swelling backing vocals and a distant bass drum help transform "Ghost Life" into a rollicking rag by its conclusion. "Crooked Lust" flutters and shimmies to the piano, marimbas and the punctuating crash of cymbals, while the pulse of organ keys heighten the woozy grace of love song, "Beneath Your Tree."
The lesson? That while subsistence is fine for living, sometimes art and creativity require more, newer challenges.
"It just felt like there were others things that we wanted to explore," Moore admits. "And yeah, I think we were kind of bored."
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