Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Nov. 20, 2006
Few records released this year will make listeners ache or, perhaps, take comfort in their aching quite like Space Between, the Lesser Birds of Paradise’s full-length follow-up to 2004’s gorgeous String of Bees. The whole disc, 13 tracks in all, just seems to tremble with emotion, always teetering, fragile and naked and beautiful, near some imaginary edge or nestled quietly in a darkened corner.
To some degree, the two men fronting the Lesser Birds — singer-songwriters Mark Janka and Tim Joyce — have been sculpting this approach as their modus-operandi for years. But, the songs assembled here transcend the group’s previous efforts, at once building on the Lesser Birds’ tradition of finger-picked acoustics and half-whispered refrains while creating deceptively spare folk/alt-folk ballads that sound too heartfelt and immediate to have been mapped out in earlier drafts.
Nearly every song seems to testify to the record’s greatness. “I Envy The Photons,” whose somber lyrics offer the album its title, is a filmy phantom of a song, the heartbreak hiding behind veils of thin acoustic patterns, spare found sounds and whispered vocals where the foundations of high-school science give way to high-school longing and loneliness. Fragile folk guitars and sometimes-melancholy deliveries form the backbone of stand-outs like the poppy “A Rehearsal,” the country twang of “Always The Sound” and “Paint Your Fingernails” but the Lesser Birds keep the record from sounding monochromatic by fleshing out proceedings with French horn, tape loops and xylophone. [“Do You Remember When (We Overthrew The Government)?” also tosses in drone-washes of sound and weeping cellos.]
The list runs on. “Spider Outside” will consume listeners for its details: fragments of digital delay, an understated bottle-slide on a guitar neck, that ominous bass-and-drum lurch. Elsewhere, the subtle specifics take a backseat and the trio becomes captivating for its epic sweep, whether it’s an instrumental, whistle-accented bridge on “The Devil’s Rope,” the ethereal wake-up call of “My Refrain” or the plaintive wails and wordplay of the impeccably titled “Claire Danes, If You Ever Get A Nose Job, I Swear To Jesus I’ll Hang Myself.” The record is nothing if not spirited until the end. If “Take The Leaves,” a plain-spoken reflection on lost love falling 11 songs in, doesn’t break your goddamned heart, Joyce’s devastating, album-closing take on “You Are My Sunshine” most definitely will.
Lesser Birds loyalists – and that circle is sure to grow in coming months or years – no doubt will be taken with how the band continues to sound increasingly comfortable in its own skin, more sure of what notes ring true and brushing aside more and more of those that don’t. Some of this could be traced to Joyce’s new role working the faders last winter, as appropriate a season as one could imagine for a recording seeking such warmth. But, even with Barry Phipps assisting later with mixing, the band clearly is gravitating away from some of the studio flourishes on String of Bees. At least one reason is clear: the songwriting simply is incredible. String of Bees could be engaging, illuminating and heartwrenching, possibly one of the best records of 2004. The new songs only serve to illustrate just how much Janka, Joyce and Greg Thomas keep growing and maturing, refining the sound they’ve been developing for the past few years. Space Between is the trio’s masterpiece.