Hymns for a Dark Horse


    We’ve known how much influence the dearly departed Buckley has had over crooning, swooning Brits like Coldplay and Travis, who rightly worship at the altar of his soaring voice. But not until I’d heard Bowerbirds’ lead singer Phil Moore’s pipes did I make any kind of connection between Buckley and the Devendra Banhart/Vetiver/freak-folk camp. When Moore wraps a slinky vibrato around the lines “Here’s to my lover’s hands and feet/ They are the roots that will weave through the floor” on “Bur Oak,” it’s an outright channel of Buckley from beyond.



    The title tree in “Bur Oak” isn’t a one-off reference to nature; most of Bowerbirds’ songs roam where the wild things are. (And here’s where the Buckley trail could go cold, although “The Sky is a Landfill” certainly seemed to be making an environmental statement.) On “In Our Talons,” an album highlight that lurches along like a creaky ship buoyed by swaying accordion, Moore assumes the voice of different birds calling out choruses. The song ends with a statement right out of An Inconvenient Truth: “It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous Earth/ We’re only human, this at least we’ve learned.” The band’s avian jones shows up again on “The Marbled Godwit.” “Human Hands” is all about how there’s no ill-will in nature, how only humans are capable of hate. And other tunes drop references to loons, leopard frogs, and wise old snails.


    Sure, it can get too granola and faux-backwoods-simplistic at times, but if Bowerbirds’ lyrics seem naive, ignore them and just take in the band’s beautiful music. Of particular value is accordionist Beth Tacular, whose wheezing instrument adds a gypsy element to the band’s sound. Mark Paulson throws a rousing violin line into “Dark Horse.” Moore transitions nicely from acoustic guitar on that song to banjo later on “The Ticonderoga.” And when his lyrics get out of the woods, they can be most effective. “Olive Hearts” is the album’s coda. Set to simple guitar strums, Moore tells the tale of a stay in a rural inn, ending an evening with this line: “So here’s where we give the toast/ Cheers to the wives of the drunks/ Cheers to the husbands that tag along for good luck.” It’s a perfect ending to an album that deftly digs up a vein of American gothic tracing back through Whitman, Poe, and Hawthorne.