Review: The Lesser Birds of Paradise and Jared Grabb – “Reading Light”

The latest offering from Thinker Thought Records, a split EP with Jared Grabb and The Lesser Birds of Paradise, asks you to choose walking down the lesser of two paths: one marked with ambitious but uneven acoustic folk-pop and another saturated with more consistent, though also more formulaic, electric power-pop.Grabb – who seems to be the driving force behind the Peoria, Ill.-based Thinker Thought – has a definitive style and sense of songwriting, but the shortcomings of his two songs can sometimes be overpowering.

 

The album-opening “My Heart Does Not Travel” is a deceptively simple meditation for acoustic guitar, and the recording of Grabb’s acoustic fretwork is incredibly crisp and engaging. You can actually hear – and not be distracted by – his hands moving from chord to chord, and each note seems to have a surprising range to it.

The song is also driven, however, by multiple vocal contributions, from Jared and Jonathan Grabb and, in the end, a chorus of four more. But while the use of multiple lead vocals seems to add a bit of theatricality and dialogue to the song, the voices themselves seemed trapped in the halls of regional theater.

The vocals are low in the mix and, while on key, seem to always be a hair away from moving into dissonance. It’s almost unfortunate that, instead of enjoying the movement of the song, which seems larger in scope than its four-minute running time indicates, you sometimes wait to hear Grabb slip and fall.

“Restoration of Beauty” fares slightly better, if only because Grabb’s approach seems more direct and a bit more emotive. Over a finger-picked acoustic lead, Grabb softly speaks his way through the first moments of the song, making it sound far more fragile than its predecessor.

After those initial whispers, the song expands into something similar to “My Heart Does Not Travel,” an acoustic-pop piece that moves as quickly from chord to chord as it does from verse to chorus to verse.

The Lesser Birds of Paradise seem to hit the mark more easily, but their songs are also more radio-friendly and less inventive than for what Grabb seems to be reaching. “Josephine (Loud)” and “Boy (Loud)” are head-bopping power-pop nuggets, the types of songs you could hear in the background of some coming of age movie where our heroes-in-training take to the streets.

These winged natives from Chicago clearly know the value of hooks, and toss in more than their fair share. But, to what end?

The biggest drawback about The Lesser Birds of Paradise is also what seems to make their work accessible in the first place: you’ve heard this before. This isn’t a major disaster in and of itself, but halfway through the Flop-ish “Josephine (Loud)” you wish the band just cut loose and thrashed around in all of its rock distortion, sounding more like Philadelphia’s Latimer than what you might hear when you flip on your local AOR station.

Even a detail that could provide a window to more signature work – singer Mark Janka’s voice is often far more gentle than the guitars that surround it – doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

In promotional material for the split EP, Thinker Thought says both musicians have approached their music differently on the release, which also features artwork from Peoria, Ill. cartoonist Grant Reynolds.

Both known for band-oriented acoustic arrangements, Grabb recorded all of his work as solo acoustic pieces while The Lesser Birds of Paradise decided to plug in on both songs (thus the parenthetical “Loud” in each song title). This could explain why both bands sound slightly out of their skin on the split.

In the end, it all makes Reading Light an interesting aside for two regional artists, but ultimately less than substantial for anyone curious about hearing these musicians for the first time. – Delusions of Adequacy, May 19, 2003

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