Providence, RI’s Brown Bird is better listened to in a room made of wood. Of course, it is easy to download the code and listen to the band on small computer speakers, but what is the point? You miss the warm layers of guitar, banjo, violin, double bass, cello, and bass drum (wooden rim) which hangs thick over their latest full-length effort, Salt for Salt, being released October 18th, 2011 on Supply & Demand Music (home to Dark Dark Dark, Vandaveer, etc). The album artwork (below) was illustrated by Will Schaff (Okkervil River, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Songs:Ohia).
Recorded live to tape in Pawtucket, RI, Salt for Salt is the first album by Brown Bird to capture the intense energy of the duo’s live show, surging in waves that often swell into high-spirited, foot-stomping madness. David Lamb’s lyrics are as well-written as they are emotionally intelligent, thankfully avoiding the pitfalls of the wish-wash known as “modern-folk” or “singer-songwriting”. Lamb and his partner MorganEve Swain write simply, and the record is eerily sparse at times – a tambourine, a bass drum and the cello often the sole accompaniement to Lamb’s (what a name) cracked, wood-smoke voice.
Brown Bird are also not afraid to write experimentally either. “Ebb and Flow” and “Shiloh” (the latter a longer, entirely instrumental track) each boast melodies worthy of a dervish, the melodic structure reminiscent more of Turkish or Greek rebetika than old-time or bluegrass. Lamb and Swain work beautifully together, with his banjo providing a backbone to a fiddle break, her harmonies a lonesome echo of the melody. But Brown Bird also know too much to be pure romantics; Lamb’s continual reference to ships clearly come from his years spent working at the shipyard in Warren, RI, just as their arrangements well only from a deep knowledge of the American folk tradition.
Paring down from five musicians on their last album to the duo of Lamb and Swain on “Salt For Salt” resulted in some necessary instrument changes. Swain, a lifelong violinist, spends most of the album on cello and double bass, instruments she picked up in the past two years. Lamb has a kick drum and woodblock/tambourine rigged to a second pedal in front of him, using his whole body and voice to carry the rhythm and melody simultaneously. This new configuration propels each song forward with a blur of hands, feet and voices.
A cantankerous and drafty two-man ship stationed in Providence, RI, Brown Bird plays original, traditional American music in the best sense possible. It is music that comes from a context but is not afraid of the context: a living root with a view towards the leaves.