Joey Burns is a founding member of Calexico. He has also played in Friends of Dean Martinez and Giant Sand. The new Calexico album, The Thread That Keeps Us, is available now on Anti Records. You can follow Calexico on Twitter here.
The first word that comes to mind when I listen to Dark Bird Is Home is flow. The songs, the sound of Kristian Matsson’s sweet, warbly voice and the lush instrumentation all capture a feeling of movement. Blood, water, wind, tears all seem to be in motion, while the theme of travel or leaving repeats throughout the album. The sounds of the guitar, whether finger-picked or strummed, propel these songs and act as the vehicle on which the vocals ride or are catapulted into the unknown. The production matches the moods and instrumentation beautifully. There is a healthy dose of distortion on Kristian’s voice that follows the dynamics of each song and its emotional tone, which I really like a lot. This helps ground the feeling of wavering in his voice but doesn’t take away from its fine arc and masterful weave. There’s also a forlorn quality of country sadness in the tone of his vocal, which reminds me of someone fresh from a broken heart or a great loss. This quality draws me into the songs, and from there I am constantly impressed by the way the arrangements parallel a wider emotional spectrum in the stories and scenarios that unfold.
On first listen, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is being used for instrumentation. It looks as though Matsson is not only a talented guitarist and vocalist, but also plays the clarinet, alto horn, harmonica, banjo, drums, keyboards and some pedal steel. The album also features some friends who share his love for multi-instrumental duties and do so in a very tasteful way. Mike Noyce adds viola, violin, electric guitar and backing vocals. C.J. Camerieri brings some trumpet and French horn parts. Mike Lewis plays (soprano) saxophone, bass, piano, synthesizer and electric guitar. Niclas Nordin adds percussion and drums, Mats Winkvist and Dan Huiting both play bass. Bird Coulter adds a little piano, and so does Oskar Bond. (A little piano goes a long way. I like that.) All of this makes for a very interesting sonic palette. These instruments and their textures complement the vocals really well. It’s almost as if the arrangements are an extension of the lyrics, filling in what isn’t written or sung, so that the music touches on a whole range of emotions and sensations. Thanks to the way Matsson and engineer BJ Burton have mixed the tracks, there’s a wonderful balance between all the parts involved. The ethereal elements have an Icelandic or Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois vibe about them, but it probably also has something to do with working at April Base Studio, near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This makes me want to go check out their studios even more now.
Side A starts with just a rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming in 6/8 time. No chords, just rhythm. Then the simple repetition of four chords begins. They sound hopeful, open in their voicing. A short while later we hear the first few lines from what feels like a weary traveler trying to discern what is real and what is a dream and how the two relate to one another. The song is titled “Fields of Our Home.” The melody has a soothing quality even though there’s a roughness in Matsson’s voice. The first verse remains simple and unadorned, but by the second verse there is a mirage off in the distance and one can hear other instruments begin to take shape. It feels similar to staying up all night and watching the sunrise. The instruments and synthesizers are veiled in a slow simmer of delay, reverb and distortion. This introduces us to the emotional blueprint of the album, the sort of pastoral heart that weaves its way in and out of the songs and stories. There is a suspense that builds, and by the time we reach the bridge, with the line “When all falling down is just the need of a wave,” it sounds as if the singer is becoming ghost-like, or lighter somehow. It’s a momentary shift of space — by the third verse he’s back in the same room where the song started. Now there are no effects at all, it just feels dry and alone. It brings attention to the theme of movement, emotional pathfinding and sense of place. By the end of the song, though, Matsson becomes completely engulfed in a sea of white noise and oscillating signal. The haunting shadow of what was once right there before our ears is now suddenly leaving us: it sounds as if we are witnessing an out-of-body experience.
“Darkness of the Dream” has a fuller band arrangement, complete with bass, drums, backing vocals and an interesting drone on what sounds like a mandolin but is probably an open-tuned acoustic guitar played high on the neck. Inside the dream, there are “songs like mirrors” that make the singer admit, “fuck it, I’m afraid.” His honesty, coupled with the uplifting music, gives us confidence that no matter how dark and twisted the dream may be, he will be all right. Three minutes into the song, the band disappears and we are left alone with the dreamer, who confides that “It only starts with a river, but I know it’s only waiting for the golden ground.” After that line, the song ascends into a slashing and slicing of electric guitars and energy. It feels as if the band picks up tempo, eager to reach that higher ground where angelic vocals entice us to follow suit. The dynamics and swell of this wave of emotion, whether or not it is dreamed or real, are very powerful.
Like a new chapter, the next song, “Singers,” takes us to a quiet room of finger-picked electric guitar, as if we have entered the parlor of an old wooden house next to a graveyard. The lyrics embrace the passing of a father figure who might be a singer of sorts. This person has made an impact on the one standing in the room, channeling the importance of blood and bone, stories and home. The seasons shift and there’s a slow-motion unfurling of what could be a soul coming out of the ground or a close-up view of a seed beginning to sprout. The feeling of something low and slow-moving amidst a brightly picked tune is a nice complement to the notion of life and death standing side by side. This is the kind of subtlety that makes for a good foundation of song and sound, a sonic house that can weather any storm.
We return to rhythm with a stone-skipping beat on an acoustic guitar that leads to the ethereal world of “Slow Dance.” The harmonica way off in the distance embodies a “stranger in this land” persona while the outstandingly played trumpet accompanies it like a fine-feathered friend or perhaps a lover enticing this traveler to stay. These characters, awoken by light and the desire to learn a new language, might be stranded on a lonely beach, but the sweetness of “smoke and honey” does indeed sound like a fine place to be. It isn’t long before we walk back up the steep streets of “Little Nowhere Towns” to revisit that same parlor room as before, to find someone plunking on a creaky old upright piano. This 6/8 song reminds me of the meditative sentiment Paul Simon does with the American Songbook. The backing vocals help give moral support to the sad and lonely idea of “selling emptiness to strangers.” It’s a beautiful and poignant close to the first half of this album.
Within a few beats we are overlooking the Atlantic Ocean’s majestic swell in the tune “Sagres” and heading full-steam into Side B. The steady percussion combined with the lulling melody makes for a hypnotic wave that Matsson uses to go deep and wrestle the demons inside and throw them off the Portuguese coast into the sea of doubt. There are glimmers of familiarity in Matsson’s voice and the music — this song reminds me of some of the New Zealand bands that I grew up listening to — that engage my curiosity and make me wonder what he’s been listening to lately.
“Timothy” is one of the strongest songs on the album; the groove is solid and the arrangement divine. Mike Noyce’s viola underlines a subtle Celtic thread that offers a wonderful countermelody to the lead vocal. There are a couple of interesting shifts in the song; my favorite happens underneath the line “she said, ‘Why are you so complicated, when some time is the only giver?’” — the tempo speeds up, reminding me of the sort of wild abandon and acceleration “with the pedal down” of untamed youth, with little regard for others or for the concept of time.
Returning to the coast on the song “Beginners,” where the “waves” are just within reach of “the wild and wonderful trails” that two people belong to, we also see a return to the acoustic finger-picked guitar with minimal help from a leaping piano line on the chorus. This is a carefree song that breathes optimism in the face of uncertainty and embraces passion in the heat of night, before daylight dismantles the moment. There is movement of the heart and one can feel a change coming over the singer as he “lets it out to let it ride.” Before we push on, there is a sense of looking back in the song “Seventeen” that gives a momentary pause and a chance to reflect on where the singer has been. “Stuck on the highway,” he reminds us that it was “not about where I was going” but more about needing to find comfort in the arms of someone or “the streets of the fading lines.” It works well and feels genuine, even if the glow around the city seems a little dark.
The album closes with the title track, and the tempo changes to a slow, walking pace as Matsson confides that he is truly “letting go of rope” and connection to what was, finding enough peace within to “be fine” in the moment. Three minutes in, with the song feeling like it might close, the drums suddenly kick in with some tambourine and celestial electric guitars à la Johnny Marr. It’s a nice surprise and a perfect way to end the record, with Matsson singing that “this is not the end” and that this parting is supposed to be. It is OK, and we will all find our way. The song ends and there is a ghost of a trailing pedal-steel line that spins up into the sky for one last musical moment before we return to the silence outside our homes. It’s a nice way to close out the album here at day’s end.