Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy June 23, 2004
There are a string of interesting adjectives that could be affixed to the folk-pop strains of Chicago’s wonderfully named Lesser Birds of Paradise.
The band’s sound has a kind of unpolished and muted beauty to it, to be sure, the kind of quiet but emotionally engaging delivery you’d expect from a pseudo-folk act of their growing regard. The songs on String of Bees, their latest full-length, are carefully constructed but feel like casual asides, ranging from examples of naïve charm (the smooth, poppy “Mermaid on the Blvd.”) and romantic balladry (“Where The River Meets The Sea,” the longing of “Come To The City”) to odes of somber reflection (the strings and piano accents of “Because We Are Also What We Have Lost,” the verses of “Assorted Aphrodisiacs”) and playful, guilt-free pop (the shuffle of radio-ready “Josephine”).
The things that are greatest about the 11-track CD, however, may be wholely outside and beyond the colorful words that might be chosen for and assigned to the quartet.
The most magical and effecting part of the aforementioned “Because…” isn’t the soft picking of a folksy acoustic guitar or the gentle, lyrical whisper of vocalist Mark Janka (though both are obviously worth noting and applauding).
The thing that sells you on the majesty of it all is a tenderly choreographed denoument for strings that closes the song.
Janka’s soft refrain of “If you are weary/put your body near me” in one of the verses of “You Snooze, You Lose” clearly hits home on more than a few levels, but the details of the song that remain for me are the occasional tap of what sounds like a xylophone and the sub-vocal hum of a droning harmonica.
In “When The Devil Does A Drive-By,” there are great acoustic guitar patterns and smooth vocals right out of an old Lomax field recording, but there are also these strangely inviting pockets of swelling, swirling background noise — the moan of a musical saw, perhaps, or the soft voice of a dulcimer.
It’s this sort of attention to the craft that makes the record feel like more of a complete and original artistic statement than the whiny — though genuinely heartfelt — refrains of your neighborhood coffee-shop acoustic-folk troubadour.
And then there are songs like “Josephine,” which remind you why Lesser Birds of Paradise are sometimes name-dropped among bands with lengthier track records and greater renown than themselves. In the song (which appeared in more distorted form, I believe, on a split EP with Jared Grabb), the Lesser Birds prove they’re just as adept at dreamy acoustic pop as they are with country-inflected folk, crafting a tune with verses and choruses that get trapped between your ears.
Critics, no doubt, will assign phrases like “sleepy dream-folk” and “lo-metabo-fi” and other such nonsense to the majority of the band’s latest Contraphonic effort, but it’s tracks like this that shake some of that off and keep the listener paying attention.
The record closes with “Back There On Foot,” a whimper of a song that acts as a sort of a closing lullaby, Janka softly intoning the phrase“No one understands” after a record full of whispered confessions.
The song, like much of what precedes it, is deceptively stripped-down to its emotional core, a track that is carefully built to sound as if it floated, light and airy and spontaneous, right onto the disc. In between references to the record’s title, the song offers soft, multi-tracked vocals, gently strummed acoustic guitars, perfectly timed lap steel moaning and atmospheric found sounds, and the Lesser Birds still manage to make it feel soothing and structured but also natural, like a few caring words shared between old friends.
Now, that’s a feat.