North Carolina’s Triangle has made a name for itself producing beautiful orchestral folk music. Lost in the Trees and Megafaun – as well as their former band mate Justin Vernon – are among the culture of sleepy yet powerful southern-tinged music with ties to the area. Bowerbirds announced their membership in the group with their 2007 debut Hymns for a Dark Horse. Well received, the album contained rolling acoustic numbers, pervasive harmonies, and the sparkling, captivating voices of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular. The Clearing continues along the same path, only backed with the power of a bigger budget and wider resources. The result is another wonderful album full of folk gems that draws heavily on its Carolinian contemporaries, dazzling with bright Southern songs if occasionally lapsing into something expected. But when the band is at their most ambitious, they push their heritage to its greatest limits.
“Well the light was rust,” Moore begins the opener “Tuck the Darkness In“, harkening the album in all its glory. His voice begins tenderly, before losing its falsetto aspirations as the drums announce a coming insistence. As the chorus comes in, the song swells around its frontman in a crescendo that will become familiar over the course of the album, but never boring. The second half of the song shows the band combining the flowery and the bold. This is Bowerbirds at their best, and when they reach it they captivate. Moore’s singing blends into the lush instrumentation, Tacular’s cooing seems at home amongst the string arrangements, and acoustic and electric become, simply, music.
The apex of this mode – and The Clearing‘s best song – is “Stitch the Hem“. Soft piano plinks are backed by Tacular’s mesmerizing oohing, drum sticks clap over top, and each piece adds to the next. It takes a (short) minute and half before Bowebirds pick up the tempo, each element becoming more of its own and the song adding up to an experience that continues to surpass its parts. Moore’s singing at the climax begs for a sing-along and the banjo finalizes the summer-night-back-porch-concert feel that Bowerbirds epitomize.
Elsewhere on the album the band aims less for the epic and more for the intimate. The only slight falters come with the change of pace. “Walk the Furrows” and “Overcome With Light” cling to the sparse instrumentation for just a bit too long, relying too heavily on Moore’s lone voice to bolster the songs. He is best in the dense and rich surroundings of Bowerbirds’ more energetic moments. Tacular fares better, her beautiful and at times haunting voice is a deserved centerpiece and “In the Yard” and “Hush” put her power on display. But even these songs don’t hit their stride until she is joined by her bandmates.
The Clearing relies heavily on allusions to nature. But Bowerbirds are best in a country home with friends, not alone in the woods. “Sweet Moment” begins with Moore singing over a twanging guitar:
I’m the red bird
You’re the brown bird
In the brambles behind the house
And we both know what the wind does
And I can’t make peace just yet
He can’t quite pull off the first two lines, but as the song pushes on it matters less and less. When they layer as much together as they can fit into a recording studio, Bowerbirds create brilliant songs that envelope and welcome you into their world. The Clearing‘s best moments encapsulate because they remain personal while still unabashedly grandiose. According to their label’s website, The Clearing was recorded after Tacular recovered from a serious illness and after she and Moore ended and re-started their relationship. But though tragic events can force one into solitude, Bowerbirds flourish in company – when they limit themselves, the band shows its cracks.
Nonetheless, they have inherited the best of their culture. Though the quieter moments on the album don’t stand out from the crowd, the rest of it houses the nourishing and hospitable comfort of a bunch of friends taking part in each other’s art and knowing that this is living. Here, Bowerbirds display the epics contained in their Southern roots, and here they take the best of old timey folk and country and make something modern of it.