While Brown Bird may not have been around for a century, the sounds they’ve released into the world over the past few years have delved into straight-up old school bluesy Americana circa the 1920s - 1940s, relying on acoustic instrumentations, uniquely talented vocals, and the lyrical sensibilities of band founder David Lamb. With their newest release Fits of Reason, Lamb and partner MorganEve Swain blow that foundation upward and outward with a trip around the globe to gather additional influences, and the result is an eleven song collection that highlights why Brown Bird is a band you should invest your time in getting to know, even while they are attempting to depress the hell out of you.
At first listen the opening track and lead single “Seven Hells” could fit on a prior work, but a second run through reveals that everything has grown a plug – gone are the songs built on Lamb banging away at an acoustic guitar while Swain whacks an upright bass. “Nine Eyes” plays out with circling melodies and slightly off-kilter harmonics, and the intentional off-key harmonies show up throughout the album’s run. Evocative of Andrew Bird’s headier Bowl of Fire days, the song revolves around a dervish of electric guitar work, introducing a Middle Eastern, East Indian, and gypsy flair to the song and the album as a whole.
In “Bow for Blade,” Swain demonstrates her sultry violin skills, but more impressively pours her vocals through a voice loop, allowing her to harmonize with herself. Despite her obvious background in traditional bluegrass, the harmonies sound less like an Emmylou Harris/Allison Krauss duet than like the Andrews Sisters from the 1930s. “Barren Lakes” revisits the achromatic harmony well and comes close to pushing into the realm of on-edge teeth grinder, but “The Messenger” then breezes through with a sashay and a hip toss, and despite bleak lyrics it serves to lighten up the album again.
Most of the songs on this effort sound sped up – when Lamb put down the acoustic guitar and picked up an electric, he picked up the pace as well, and listening to a vinyl version of Fits is akin to playing 2011’s Salt for Salt at 45 instead of 33 1/3. “Iblis” is an “Egyptian Reggae”-esque dancy instrumental, bleeding into the darkly ominous “Wayward Daughter” – tinkly little bells at the end of the song do nothing to lighten the baleful mood, and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” springs to mind (thankfully without the pea soup vomitorium).
The opening bars of “Threads of Measure” continue a sense of foreboding, before the instrumentation breaks open into a seemingly infectious and playful song. You may even be tempted to rise off the couch and sway around the room a bit, until you grasp lyrics dealing with your eminent death and the overall fucked-upedness of life as we know it, and then you’ll want to sit back down on the couch, or more likely just lay down on the floor. One trick of Brown Bird’s, and one they’ve come close to perfecting, is layering their music with lyrics that are heavy and deep, with a slinky undercurrent running consistently in the background. It’s like they’re trying to convince you to dance at a funeral.
When the Eastern influences on Fits of Reason meld with the driving beat of Swain’s bass, Brown Bird comes off as a feistier, grungier DeVotchka. The album is not so much the band growing larger as it is them taking a step down a side road, incorporating new influences or just making old influences more obvious, while simultaneously putting more depressing verse out there for us to chew on. The band has said that this album is intentionally heavier and more intent on “grappling with the human condition,” and not only have they fully realized that intent with Fits Of Reason, but they’ve put out some of the best work of their career to date.