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Album Review: Bowerbirds, 'The Clearing'

Bowerbirds The Clearing

All eyes have been on the North Carolina three-piece Bowerbirds since 2007 when their debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse, garnered support from such big names as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, who called them his “new favorite band in forever”. Their 2009 sophomore album, Upper Air, was another critical success, even getting a perfect score from the A.V. Club. With two highly acclaimed albums behind them, the alt-folk trio's forthcoming The Clearing comes with a serious step up in production.

Recorded in Bon Iver’s Wisconsin April Base Studio, The Clearing features a cleaned up, polished Bowerbirds and a new layer of orchestral instrumentation somewhere between Andrew Bird, Beirut, and Sufjan Stevens. In theory, The Clearing should be great, but ultimately it never reaches the heights of Bowerbirds’ earlier albums. While Hymns and Upper Air were purposeful, evocative, lo-fi indie-folk-pop affairs, The Clearing is a little directionless and doesn’t have quite as much heart. There are no bad songs on the album and it has some clear highlights, but nothing is nearly as powerful as earlier tracks like “In Our Talons” or “Northern Lights”. All the elements of greatness are there — lyrical prowess, wistful vocals and loads of instrumental talent — but the trio just can’t quite figure out what to do with them this time around.

The Clearing starts on a high note with its two previously released tracks, “Tuck the Darkness In” and “In the Yard”. The former is a melancholy, verbose track led initially by Philip Moore’s vocals and a soft piano. Halfway through, the track starts building intensely as some strings come in, the piano gets more intense and Moore starts really singing. By the end, everything has come together at full blast to reach an epic crescendo. Beth Tacular takes vocal duties on “In the Yard”, another slow, reflective track, which hits its stride through some perfect harmonies between Tacular and Moore.

With both his lyrics and guitar work, Philip Moore draws heavily from early Bob Dylan on this album, particularly on “Walk the Furrows”, “Brave World” (where he recites part of “With God On Our Side”), and “Sweet Moment”. The last is, as the name suggests, one of The Clearing’s more pleasant moments. The harmonic vocals and wistful guitar come together to form one of the album’s most nostalgic tracks. The Clearing’s best song, though, might be its last, the six-minute closer “Now We Hurry On”. The song starts with a melancholy piano, string, and vocal movement, which gives way to a quicker Spanish guitar and some poppier vocals, then goes to just sparse piano and singing, and finally dissolves into a couple minutes of faint, sparkly piano. There are great moments on other tracks, but the surrounding songs ramble on and run together.

The Clearing is out March 6 via Dead Oceans. Listen to “Tuck the Darkness In” and “In the Yard” below.