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Birdsong and Morning: Signs and Winders
by George Graham
(Blue Gentian Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/20/2018)
Lately, there seems to be a spate of contemporary music that evokes classical influence, sometimes with orchestral settings, and sometimes involving artists who maintain dual careers in classical and pop, and occasionally with some old-fashioned art-rock influence. Most of it tends to be somewhat eclectic and some of it can be complex enough to be challenging to many listeners. This week, we have the latest album by a group that has managed to thread the figurative needle in creating interesting music that has a distinctly mellow texture. It’s the latest by the group Birdsong At Morning, a recording titled Signs and Wonders.
Lowell, Massachusetts-based Birdsong at Morning goes back to about 2011, but the principal members, singer-songwriter Alan Williams and bassist Greg Porter have been collaborating since high school, when both lived in North Carolina, interestingly at opposite ends of the state. Williams says that his fascination with music goes back to age three when a babysitter left a copy of the 45 of the Beatles I Am the Walrus around and young Alan had a record player at the time. He became absorbed with the sounds, and to this day one can hear bits of the Beatles style, including the penchant for interesting string arrangements in Birdsong’s music. Both Williams and Porter spent a summer at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. They went their separate ways, with Williams forming a band called Knots and Crosses, which attracted some attention, and Porter forming a group called Talking to Animals, which released an album nationally, and then Porter went on to perform as a sideman with people like Aimee Mann and Martin Sexton. Meanwhile, Alan Williams began working with and dating Darlene Wilson, who was a classically trained pianist and worked as a producer and recording engineer for various New England singer-songwriters like Patty Larkin, Chris Smither and Catie Curtis.
Williams, in the meantime, maintained a career in academe, getting his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at Brown University and teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, where he is now chairman of the music department.
The Williams, Porter and Wilson eventually got together as Birdsong at Morning, releasing their debut album as a series of EPs in 2011. Through that recording and their followup album A Slight Departure their music was dominated by Alan Williams’ mellow songs, and has been described at chamber pop, which skillfully combined pleasing harmonious sounds with enough interesting musical elements to kept it out of the realm of elevator music.
On their new album, they continue with the sound, with Williams’ songs maintaining their combination of folky acoustic textures with the frequent accompaniment of a 20-piece string orchestra called the Wondrous Signifiers. Alan Williams’ vocals are well-suited to the often atmospheric sounding songs, with lyrics that are largely impressionistic.
In addition to the three core members, drummer Ben Wittman, a ubiquitous studio musician and producer is heard where drums appear, with Thomas Juliano providing electric lead guitar.
Opening is a piece that epitomizes the sound of this album. Waterfall is an impressionistic love song with an attractive melody with the string orchestra featured prominently. <<>>
The title song, Signs and Wonders is one of the highlights of the album. The lyrics are a kind of poetic appreciation for some of the little things of life. Musically, on the other hand, it’s pretty sophisticated with its 5/4 meter and interesting compositional elements. <<>>
When I reviewed their last album, A Slight Departure in 2015, I mentioned the band Supertramp as one of the groups who in the past did this kind of mellow hybrid. On the new album, Birdsong at Morning covers one of the better-known Supertramp compositions, The Logical Song, but Birdsong gives it a very different texture, almost dirge-like at times. <<>> Then the band gets into an extended instrumental section, in the closest thing they have to a jam. <<>>
Back on the contemplative side is My Ghost a nicely constructed piece that mixes the folky acoustic guitar foundation with the orchestral sound of the string section. <<>>
A different facet of the band is shown on a song called Won’t Let Go, with ominous lyrics warning of bad things to some but with hope of a “light there to guide us.” The twangy guitar, and the song’s minor key can at times hint at the texture of the soundtrack of an old Western movie. <<>>
Another song that celebrates the smaller things in life is Extraordinary, with an almost lullaby quality, with the appropriately mellow string arrangement. <<>>
There is one short instrumental on the album, Kehena Shuffle with a mixture of folky and traditional Hawaiian influences. <<>>
The album ends with its lengthiest piece, Study in Blue which again recalls a bits of the band Supertramp, along with some string arrangements and even drum and bass lines that recall the Beatles on their Sgt. Peppers album. Lyrically it is summed up by its title, with its implications of sadness. <<>>
Signs and Wonders the new release by the band Birdsong at Morning, featuring the songs, lead vocals, arrangements and production of Alan Williams, is probably the best yet by this group that has raised the level of mellow, contemplative music to something that is creative and artistically substantial, and a long way from new agey, ambient or so-called elevator music. While the lyrics will not provide any particularly profound insights, their impressionistic quality is a good fit for the melodic, well-arranged music that has been aptly named chamber pop.
From a technical standpoint, the recording is significant. The mix is outstanding, with the sound clean and the ambient quality a nice balance between clarity and atmosphere. The dynamic range could have been better, though, as is usually the case these days. But buyers of the physical recording get a two disc set, with an accompanying Blu-Ray disc which contains surround-sound and high-resolution versions at a 192 K sample rate, and also all instrumental versions, sans vocals. It’s impressive on a good surround-sound system. The Blu-Ray disc also comes somewhat dreamy videos that go with the mood of the music.
It has been three years since the last Birdsong at Morning album, during which time band leader Alan Williams has been busy as chairman of the music department at Umass Lowell. But he has found the time to put together a fine new recording that is both relaxing and musically substantial.
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