By Andrew Hall | 11 June 2012
Since achieving a national breakthrough by way of the Mountain Goats’ approval and a very strong debut, 2007’s Hymns For a Dark Horse, Bowerbirds have for the most part done predictable things. The duo, Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, has released two additional albums, the understated Upper Air in 2009 and this year’s excellent The Clearing; they’ve experienced the internal breakups and reunions that seem inevitable between romantic and professional partners who choose to go into businesses that revolve around writing, recording, and performing songs for ever-growing audiences; and they expanded personnel as needed to bring their visions to life in studios and on stage.
For someone who had never seen them, the path that led them to Seattle earlier this year may have been tumultuous at times, but it clearly yielded results. The five-piece, which saw Moore and Tacular augmented by cello, violin, and many other instruments, as well as a drummer with pretty overt jazz chops who played with remarkable restraint and never in predictable, straightforward ways, provided just enough volume to drown out the people in the room who wouldn’t stop talking but left the intimacy of their songs largely intact. They began with the one-two punch of Dark Horse openers “Hooves” and “In Our Talons,” two songs I hadn’t heard in years that I immediately remembered every note of. In doing so hpromptly made a compelling case for their continued existence that carried well into gorgeous renditions of new songs like Clearing’s “Tuck the Darkness In,” where the most mobile lead isn’t a battering ram of an accordion line but a gently plunked piano, less interesting in plowing through an audience and more concerned with gradually pulling them in.
The band’s new songs rarely approached their first songs’ bombast, or that of openers Dry the River, who appear based on the number of people who came explicitly to see them to be on their way to being huge. With a bunch of moments seemingly designed to showcase their four-part harmonies and frontman Peter Liddle’s own voice, not unlike that of Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater, they proceeded to deal in huge builds, cathartic releases, and bursts of prettiness that bowled over a crowd that has, what with this being Seattle and all, probably seen Fleet Foxes at least once or twice. In contrast, the headliners rarely matched them for volume or in deliberate dynamic shifts, and even when coming across as less polished (at one moment, Moore opted to play bass on a song, half-joking that he couldn’t really do it well yet) had the personality to compensate.
If anything proves this, it’s the fact that by the end of their set I wanted nothing more than to hear “Northern Lights,” a song that barely left an impression on me the first time I heard it. Three years later, its austere arrangement and the tension in Moore’s words took on added weight and power not just because of how much goes unsaid but also how little he uses to say it, a drastic shift from the feeling of being in some sort of rickety vehicle, perhaps a wagon, as it careens down a road with little guarantee of getting wherever it’s going, that drew me to their songs in the first place.