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Birdsong at Morning: A Slight Departure
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/5/2015)
In the 1970s, in the wake of the proliferation of art rock, there followed a number of groups and artists who based their music on the more elaborate production and arrangements of the art rockers, but with music that was more mellow and aimed at wider potential appeal. Groups like Supertramp, Renaissance and the Alan Parsons Project made some interesting and appealing music that drew on art rock and melodic pop. These days, there is not a lot of that kind of hybrid happening. The melodic pop side is usually manifest by an over-the-top, contrived computer-dominated sound. There are a number of groups that carry on the art rock direction these days, they tend to go for the more abstruse sound.
This week we have new album that nicely fits into the elaborate but melodic mold of those 70s groups, with a kind of timeless sound that is nevertheless not a retro throwback. The group is called Birdsong at Morning, and their new release bears the title A Slight Departure.
Though the Lowell, Massachusetts-based band Birdsong at Morning go back to 2008, two of the three principal members have had a long musical association before that. Principal songwriter and lead vocalist Alan Williams and guitarist Greg Porter were in a number of groups previously including one called Knots and Crosses who were signed to Island Records. The experience was apparently not a good one for the band, which broke up, but after a while, Williams, Porter and Darleen Wilson came together to resume making music. In the meantime, both Williams and Porter kept busy with other pursuits. Porter performed with Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin, and Ms. Wilson served as a busy recording engineer and record producer for a number of New England singer-songwriters including Bill Morrissey, Catie Curtis and Patty Larkin. Alan Williams pursued a dual career as a performer and in academe, getting his Ph.D in ethnomusicology and is currently Associate Professor of music at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
After the musical partnership was cemented as Birdsong at Morning, the group released Annals of My Glass House, in 2011 which was issued as a four CD set of EPs. Now, they are out with A Slight Departure, a more conventionally-formatted recording. But despite being an independent do-it-yourself release, the new album bears some of the elaborate production in places with a string orchestra, arranged by Alan Williams. So at times, it does resemble 1970s art-pop, but the music is very tastefully done. The trio themselves, often supplemented by drummer Ben Wittman, frequently have a decidedly folk-influenced texture, with strumming acoustic guitars frequently at the center of the arrangements. Williams has a pleasing baritone voice which at times can resemble a younger Gordon Lightfoot, speaking of 1970s mellow folky pop.
Lyrically, the songs range from love songs to to a consideration of clinical depression to some songs constructed around a lyrical phrase that happened to pop into Alan Williams’ head. On the band’s website, Williams talks about the inspiration for the songs, and most were written music-first with lyrics to be fitted to the tune.
Leading off is The Great Escape which has a more-produced sound with lyrics about star-crossed lovers. The string section is featured prominently. While I don’t think it’s the best the album has to offer, it is likely to have wider initial appeal. <<>>
Never to Part is another love song with a more pop-influenced direction, and also includes the string section. But the band managed to keep it tasteful. <<>>
One of the highlights is a piece called Murderous Friend described by Williams as one of those sets of lyrics that popped into his mind one say as he was noodling around with his guitar. The contemplative-sounding tune and the subtle string arrangement come together particularly well. <<>>
Also with a contemplative, ethereal sound is Midnight Vespers, which features some vocal harmonies from Porter and Ms. Wilson. Alan Williams writes without hesitation that the group borrowed production touches from Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage Rosemary & Thyme, and Yes’ Roundabout. <<>>
A track called Mountainside is another good example of how Birdsong at Morning can take fairly familiar ingredients going back to the 1970s and come up with something quite nice. The song was based on Williams’ experience with his grandmother, who presented him with a fiddle. <<>>
Williams describes Pages as an “unabashed love song.” With its scaled-back production and very melodic sound, it’s also an excellent example of what makes this group so appealing. <<>>
One of the more clever songs lyrically is Not for Sale about what happens when people finally get married, and there is all that stuff needed. <<>>
The CD ends with one of the more surprising tracks, a cover of a song made famous by blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland, which Birdsong at Morning does as a kind of torch song with the string orchestra. They completely transform the song to the point that one would never suspect that it was a blues hit back in the day. <<>>
A Slight Departure, the new second album by the Massachusetts trio Birdsong at Morning is a worthwhile and interesting musical project that takes influences from the mellow 1970s and transforms them into something appealing. They get everything: the songwriting, Alan Williams first-rate vocals, the arrangements and production, and even the string section, though playing things that we have heard string sections do on many pop albums over the years, manage to sound fresh. The album has its moments of approaching the so-called Adult Contemporary pop mainstream, but I suppose that could increase the appeal for the group, and they show a degree of class.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. With two recording engineers in the band, the largely self-made recording is well done. The vocals are warm and inviting, effects are held in check and the acoustic instruments are captured authentically. But we’ll deduct the usual points for the typical mindless volume compression that kills the ebb and flow of the music in an effort to inappropriately pump up this mostly acoustic music.
“Mellow pop” has a number of connotations, including the music most likely to be played in elevators. But Birdsong at Morning have hit the proverbial sweet spot with their appealing, but interesting music.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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