The Lesser Birds of Paradise, Space Between
Space Between, the new CD from Chicago's Lesser Birds of Paradise, starts off on a spiritual note, with the emphasis on the word "spirit". The vocals in the first track, "My Refrain", are sparse and haunting--for most of the song the only accompaniment is organ, except for a bit of guitar and a strange, reedy instrument (gotta love my grasp of musical technical knowledge) at the end, rendering an almost alien sound.
The pace picks up in "A Rehearsal", though it's still a country-music kind of pace. Toe-tapping, yes. Headbanging, no. Anyone looking to rock out would be better suited to buying a Queens of the Stone Age CD. This is not rock--it's Americana at its best, its most authentic and most deceptively simple.
The instruments are languid to the point of almost blending into each other and into the celestial sphere, but the music is not meant to be rushed. The songs dictate the pace, not the other way around. There are enough surprising and interesting vocal & chord changes to keep the album from sounding indistinguishable from other alt-country records. The gentle way they integrate bits of guitar to augment the vocals add something unexpected. The delicacy of the guitar work actually reminds me of Red House Painters. Like those of RHP, these songs are sparse, but they're solidly structured and well-defined. The album feels finished--not underdone and certainly not overstated. They manage to make "You Are My Sunshine" sound majestic with a depth my childhood renditions never brought to it. The old standard is drawn out into something Yo La Tengo-ish--long, languid, quiet, yet intense. Not surprising to find a Yo La Tengo influence; the band has a song called "Lullabye For Yo La Tengo No. 2" on their website (they may even have a Lullabye for Yo La Tengo No.1--I'm not sure).
The lyrics convey stories (or sometimes just impressions) of people trying to cope, people trying to connect and Claire Danes (the three Cs). The Lesser Birds have very creative song titles--"Claire Danes, If You Ever Get A Nose Job, I Swear To Jesus I'll Hang Myself" being the longest, the most creative, and possibly the most disturbing. The song doesn't seem to be about Claire Danes--he doesn't mention her name by name. He just uses the pronoun "she", and goes on to say that butterflies like her, whoever this "her" is (Is it Claire? Will we ever know?) "So The Bear Wipes His Ass With The Rabbit" seems to be about human pain, life and desires, embodied on a small scale in a collection of animals (or it could be taken literally--I don't pretend to have authoritative insight into the lyrics. For the sake of the rabbit, I hope it's not literal). "Take The Leaves" is about being deceived by someone we care about, look up to, but don't necessarily trust. "I Envy The Photons" seems to be about someone being pushed around by science, but finding someone special (love?) because of this very thing.
It can seem maddening not to have clear definition of meaning, but with songs as delicate as these, a certain amount of obtuseness adds to the mystique. It's hard to say what any one song is "about"--the songs don't act as a lyrical snapshot. At least one song does seem to have a very specific agenda, however: In "Do You Remember When (We Overthrew The Government"), the singer asks a character, Catherine, if she remembers overthrowing the government with him . If Catherine doesn't remember, then I worry for her, but it makes for a good song.
If you want a CD that makes you wish everyday life could be as simple, wonderful and straightforward as this collection of songs seems to indicate, then this will be a find for you. If you want to rock out (which is good--I love rocking out), then let me introduce you to the music of one folk muse from the 80s, Joan Jett.