A few years ago, us music hacks with issued with a stern edict from our editors: “Stop comparing everything to Arcade Fire!” The Canadian band’s influence at the time was huge, but that order has recently been surpassed by “For the love of God, let’s try to stop mentioning Bon Iver (or Bonny Bear, if you prefer) in every review!”. North Carolina’s Bowerbirds’ third album takes in many influences, from Leonard Cohen to Fleet Foxes, but writing a review of it without mentioning Justin Vernon and his cohorts is nigh on impossible.
Phil Moore and Beth Tacular are the real life couple behind Bowerbirds and the 11 tracks here represent a re-connection of sorts both with their musical direction and their own relationship. The Clearing’s production has a traumatic history, with Beth almost dying of a mystery bug following a car crash, the couple splitting up, getting back together, adopting a dog and heading off to a remote cabin (can we think of anyone who recently went off to a remote cabin?) in order to get back to their roots. The sound of this album is not just a musical rejuvenation but also the sound of the couple re-affirming their relationship.
Opener Tuck The Darkness In is five minutes of brilliance. What begins as a simple refrain has more and more layers piled on with every verse until it forms a massive wave of sound. If we’re permitted more Bon Iver references, then it’s reminiscent of the closing swell of The Wolves. The second track takes us playfully in a different direction with In The Yard, where Beth takes the lead vocal and adds an elegantly whimsical, old-fashioned stage musical effect to the song. She later takes the vocals on Hush and both tracks beguilingly break up the album’s pace.
Phil Moore’s vocals recall Andrew Bird, and the album’s occupation with the natural environment cements this. Elsewhere there are echoes of Dirty Projectors at their most serene, knowing references to Bob Dylan and definitely more of they-who-must-not-be-named-yet-again. Other album highlights include This Year and the brilliant Overcome With Light. Even though most of the disc is derivative, they couldn’t have picked better influences to combine – lapping lakes, eerie loons and all. The overall effect is something that stands up well on its own and avoids being the Frankenstein mish-mash it could have been.
In another time and place The Clearing would have been a truly outstanding album, but it has a tough job jostling for space in the current music scene. But judge it on its own merits and this a slow-burning, intimate and accomplished disc, best enjoyed if you clear some space to let it grow.