Six years deep into their career, it would appear that Bowerbirds have it mostly figured out. Their first full length effort, 2007’s Hymns For A Dark Horse, showcased the songwriting talents of one Phillip Moore, just two years off his last release with North Carolina post-rockers Ticonderoga, in a more stripped down form than we had ever seen his work. Hymns... didn’t move massive numbers of copies or garner widespread critical praise, but it did foreshadow the compositions to come on Upper Air. Due to to a more emphatic critical response, as well as the endorsement of friend and fan Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Upper Air provided Bowerbirds - then composed of Moore, his girlfriend Beth Tacular, and his Ticonderoga bandmate Mark Paulson - with greater exposure. This set of songs afforded them the acclaim, time, and money necessary to undertake a year and a half’s worth of recording at Vernon’s studio in Wisconsin and a cabin they built in North Carolina.
The Clearing is the product of that recording, and what a product it turned out to be. Though Upper Air was astounding in its own right, this effort eclipses it almost entirely. The sunny harmonies of ‘House of Diamonds’? Outdone here by ‘In The Yard’. The timbres of the voices of Tacular and Moore have never meshed better than on this Tacular led track (though really that much could be said about the album as a whole). Tacular’s sweet, yet earthy voice, paired with one of the smoother takes that Moore has recorded to date takes their well regarded vocal interplay to levels far beyond mere harmonies. Their wordless vocalizations, both on this track and elsewhere, push far beyond anything they’ve done previously. Tacular has stated that much of the band’s free time is spent watching films of all varieties, and there’s no doubt that much of the dramatic flair of film soundtracks - and of film in general - has presented itself in this facet of the new albums. The “oohs” and “ahhs” that mark ‘In The Yard’, ‘Walk The Furrows’, create emotional peaks that would punctuate heavy scenes in a film, and music wise, Bowerbirds general sound isn’t too far from what Andrew Bird did with his soundtrack for the 2010 indie film Norman.
That being said, The Clearing eclipses said soundtrack, and much of what’s gone on in the indie folk genre over the past several years. Aside from the harmonies, there’s just so much going on here. The intricacies of the guitar parts on tracks like 'This Year', and the attention to detail throughout the album really speak to the effort that was put into this album. The interlocking parts on ‘Death Wish’ aren’t the work of bedroom hacks. The way the drums, acoustic guitar, and the faint plucking of a violin interact suggest the work of pure professionals, and on this record that’s what Bowerbirds have proved themselves to be. Having ditched the accordion for the most part, which Tacular relied on heavily on the last album, the band is freed up for these more complex arrangements, which paired with Moore’s ever incredible lyricism makes for a listening experience more rewarding than the indie folk genre often offers.
The 2000s folk landscape has shifted wholly with the latest releases from each of its luminaries. Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver traded the moroseness of his previous work for a more MOR sound. Sufjan Stevens traded his trademark literary guitar and piano based compositions for the insanity that was Age of Adz. Fleet Foxes traded their early earthiness for the 60s influenced tones of Helplessness Blues. And here we have Bowerbirds. Though their earlier efforts might not have reached the heights that the early work of these aforementioned, their trade was perhaps the most successful. Though their shift was not a broad stylistic one, they chose instead to trade sparseness for incredible detail. Though it's pleasant at surface level, this is one that takes a bit of time to unravel. And when that unraveling occurs, listen by listen, it becomes clear that this is a record of such quality that isn’t come across on a daily basis.