The Upshot: Something entirely different – so different as to be originally off-putting – but not for long. Four Bostonians reinvent multiple genres with a contagious combination of vocal approaches that are as eye and ear-opening as they are entirely exhilarating.
BY ERIC THOM
With a first listen to Birds Say, I shut down completely. Here was a vocal ballet amongst what sounded like cheesy frat boys, flashing back in time to when this choral approach first broke through the smoky haze of early ‘60s folk. If all four resembled Art Garfunkel lookalikes – each sporting matching sweater vests, I’d not be surprised.
But what a difference a day makes.
Birds Say has since become my personal find of last year. After a decade of extreme dedication to their heavily collaborative craft, Darlingside’s sophomore release is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful, if not entirely original. Singers Dave Senft (bass), Don Mitchell (guitar, banjo), Auyon Mukharji (classical violin, mandolin) and Harris Paseltiner (cello, guitar) assault a lone microphone with what becomes a shimmering tapestry of vocal magic – amidst multiple layers of deft harmonizing against a minimal backdrop of sparse, if not quirky, instrumentation. The vocals drive each hook – the vocals are the hook – as the band does their utmost to merge multiple genres on their terms. The band’s name – itself a dark, sardonic twist on “killing what you love” – should’ve been the first tip-off to their singular brand of ‘musical genocide’, yet it’s this fresh approach to writing, arranging and performing music that makes them utterly indispensible in an overly generic world. They seem to share songwriting duties and their lyrics are clearly not their strongest suit – but their choice of language adds further detail to the lushness of their harmonies. Voices mesh as if all four were blood siblings while their odd selection of accompaniment – dancing between folk/Americana, with a somewhat baroque approach to soft rock – is simplistic yet essential, never obscuring the impact of their vocals.
There’s an innocent caste to their music – immediately evident with the first track which, leaning on little more than strings, guitar and banjo, allow luxuriant vocals to lift towards epic flight, Likewise – piano and viola join gentle acoustic guitar and banjo for an overall percussive effect which helps keeps the essential third track, “Harrison Ford”, fully airborne. Obscure lyrics or no, nothing can prevent this inventive foursome back from sinking their teeth into a good idea to create something fresh. Comparisons to early CSN&Y have already been leveled yet, on the similarly exotic “Go Back”, they seem to share more in common Simon & Garfunkel, circa “Hazy Shade of Winter”, than anything birthed in the ‘70s. Banjo (is everybody an Avett?) and mandolin join cello and viola for the uplifting “My Gal, My Guy” while the title track underlines the fact that these 13 tracks are not all Mary Poppins and sugar plums. In fact, darkness and moodiness abound amidst the blue sky and sun halos. “The God Of Loss” benefits from mournful, Appalachian-esque fiddle (with an effect reminiscent of a Civil War soundtrack) and a fairly depressing lyric while the otherwise addictive “Volcano Sky” and “Do You Ever Live?” successfully mine anti-Beach Boy turf while bringing new meaning to somber. However, it’s tracks like “She’s All Around” that glue themselves to your brain, digging in as forever ear worms leading to such unexplained behavior as breaking out into full-fledged whistling attacks. This is utterly beautiful music.
DOWNLOAD: “Harrison Ford,” “She’s All Around”