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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Birch Book - 'Vol 1' (Lune Music)

Birch Book is a side-project of In Gowan Ring and it's just as driven by the personality of Mr. B'eirth. But if you're looking for a vast departure you won't find it - this is an album centered on B'eirth's singing and guitar playing. The difference is that the more psychedelic, traditional and I'd say "medieval"-style sounds of In Gowan Ring are replaced by a rootsy, Americana folk tradition instead. If you like Neil Young's wussier stuff (hey, that's still North America) then you might find a lot to love here. B'eirth's surprisingly direct with his songwriting, and the tunes roll along gently. It has a home-recorded/ProTools feel but there's some nice extra accompaniment in a few places. Viola gives it a nice edge, and the background doubled-vocals are tastefully mixed. A sticker on the package warns of ego-driven, narrative material but that's nothing to be ashamed of. This isn't a place to go for excitement, as you can imagine of someone who would write a song about having coffee in the morning. But if you want excitement, you can go to the the Gowan Ring. I saw them live once and it was a pretty good trip, though one song matched along with 'Shiny Happy People' exactly -- like, you could sing Stipe's lyrics overtop of B'eirth's, which I did, but thankfully in the back of the club where he wouldn't hear me (because I suspected he was a sensitive type, and Birch Book pretty much proved that). Besides 'Coffee Morning' you'll get other tunes with titles like 'Leaf Patches on Sidewalks', 'Warm Wind and Rain', and 'Jerkoff into the Ocean'. Okay, I admit I made up the last one. The closest this comes to the stone circle psychedelia vibe are the opening track and track 12, which are both called 'Birch Bark' -- they are shimmering, delay-affected layers of acoustic notes that fall around the stereo field like dancing raindrops. They're beautiful bookends to a very personal (if slightly unadventurous) album, and I wonder if track 12 is mislabeled as track 13 for some sort of occult reason. This is more NPR than Colin Wilson, but strangely, almost indescribably likeable.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Biota - 'Half a True Day' (Recommended)

It's been about a month away, which we can blame on travel + the yuletide season -- but also on the sheer difficulty of reviewing yet another Biota album. This one is only 69 minutes long, but it's also pretty much instrumental, eliminating those beautiful pop songs that occasionally slice through the layers. I'll reiterate that I do like Biota, enough to own three really long CDs despite a "I hate CDs" philosophy; but maybe I have to question my sanity sometimes. This is the most recent, coming out in 2008 I think. The standard tropes are there -- intense studio processing, zany effects, and a melting pot of melodic structures. But this time, the overly affected percussion is gone - we (mostly) hear a drum kit as a drum kit should sound. And drummer Larry Wilson actually has a pretty great style. It's scrappy, and start-stop, and it vibes well with the backwards-processed sounds. Half a True Day is a great title cause it feels like it takes half of a day to listen to it. There are a few moments of true alien beauty - 'Another Name' being one of them. These parts often conform to fairly traditional harmonic pleasure, in terms of instrumentation and atmosphere, but with something slightly off. The adventurous side is pretty impressive, and probably what drew me to Biota in the first place -- 'Silent Grove' gets into a real mudslide of animal skulls, abandoned duffle bags, and curving tunnels. After I got about halfway through this, I think I realised it was my favorite Biota release. I miss the songs, but the voices are still here and it feels more cohesive -- instead of intelligible lyrics, the vocals are part of the group sound, another instrument. Sure, without the obvious songs to break things up, Biota can be a bit more troublesome to take. This is a monolithic album, and I can't let myself sink into it enough to sense any development over the past decade. But it feels focused, which is something I wouldn't say about the other two. I think the CD format dares you to take one track and isolate it and listen to it alone a few times, but we all lack the patience to do this. There are parts where I get sick of the accordion or the xylophone, but there's also parts where it's both astoundingly chaotic and astoundingly controlled, and those instruments help to create the gel. And the artwork is a notch above the last two discs, though still very steeped in digital rendering and pastel pantones. Age and scenario probably means that these guys 'n gals have long-missed their chance for 15 minutes in the spotlight, but that's what make hidden pleasures so pleasureable.