We were watching a Ball of Wax show, arms folded and quiet, like proper Seattle concertgoers, and there had been some high level musicianship from someone who looked vaguely like us but more attractive, then there was some obvious confusion on stage. I believe there was an apology. There was an uncomfortable looking guitar player, and a much larger dude who looked nothing like us at all (no pretense, for example, and no facial hair) strumming with only downstrokes on a Fender electric, a pick extremely precariously held in his hand, I think crookedly, and then “Don’t tell me that you were never in Spain. . . . Cause I saw you there./ You were standing where/ the sunshine scours every noble hour you were in Spain.”
My thought, on hearing the first verse, wasn’t “There’s a kindred spirit.” My thought was “That’s the guy who understands how songwriting works better than anyone I’ve ever heard.” (I’m paraphrasing my thought process, because I’m doubtful I think in complete sentences.)
The use of rhythm in the language. The internal rhymes. The theme—on “Spanish Accusations,” as in much of Virgin of the Birds’ work, is a joyous fetishism of literary melancholia. This is a song that someone Hemingway beat up might write (which I guess means F. Scott).
That’s Virgin of the Birds. The Seattle band that Song, by Toad, a fantastic Scottish label, discovered (of course, after Ball of Wax, who have featured Virgin of the Birds often since Volume 5) and is now promoting to international acclaim.
There’s a video of Virgin of the Birds playing at a Song, by Toad New Year’s Party. He explains that he lifted the chords for “Spanish Accusations” from The Penguins’ classic “Earth Angel.”Yes, the lyric, the delivery, are so good, that this song is an entirely different entity from its progenitor.
Anyway, you could see the brilliance immediately. I collected his EPs. (It wasn’t hard. Most are on his website. With the exception of a debut EP, Mixed Choir, which showed promise but delivered a muddy, unfocused product, every EP is a self-contained, playful study of musical understatement and bedroom recording. Lyrics and vocal phrasing are developed, instrumentation is toyed with, but in more and more ambitious ways—for example, the most recent release, Summer Palace, introduces lengthy guitar work that is unusually evocative and powerful in the track “Christiane.” Anyway, each EP is distinct. You can sit back and dig on Virgin of the Birds EPs like short story collections, or poetry chapbooks.
Now the band steps into album territory. Virgin of the Birds’ first LP, Winter Seeds, is the strongest debut album I’ve heard from a singer songwriter since 2009’s Good News from Withered Hand. It is a career maker. (Coincidentally, like Withered Hand’s album, as noted above, Winter Seeds is being released in Scotland.)
How do you create a nine song album that will prove to be timeless, that will open up new audiences, that will establish you as an artistic entity?
Overall, Jon Rooney (with his fellow producer, celebrated Ball of Waxer Colin J. Nelson, who also holds down the fort playing drums that do a whole lot more than just keep the beat but that never overstep the bounds of the song) seems to have mapped out his strengths from his EPs—keep the song central, depend on the strength of phrasing; however, whereas minimal instrumentation made for an artistic statement in the EPs, maracas were almost comically the central instrument in a few songs, instrumentation is in no way limited here, except taste.
From song one, “They Wake,” a pop tune from the perspective of a boastfully burnt out Ozymandias/ Rowdy Roddy Piper/ Zelda Fitzgerald-type narrator (He sings “You may give the girls the love they need . . . but they wake they marry and they cry . . . I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” closing on “they say that the lights were left on until dawn”), you hear guitar chords with just the right amount of tone—that hallmark of great production and thoughtful composition that I mostly credit to the Cure and the Smiths. Mark Laurick, whose release I reviewed a few months ago, turns out to be able to provide unique, melodic basslines. Spots of tasteful piano, more than competent lingering lead guitar, and what feels like a Lou Reed-inspired, perfectly atonal saxophone rant from the country singer Casey Ruff each contribute. I think of it as following the Transformer model, where you feel the connection between each song, but, continuously, the universe of the record is expanding.
In other words, where I thought I was picking up something where the music might be acceptable but curious, with vocals and lyrics at the forefront, I got an expertly produced, hook-laden, artful pop record. That also has good lyrics. As if to enforce that, the vocals on this album are about 3db quieter, more blended into the music, than the EPs.
Beyond that, the songs flow. The above-mentioned “They Wake” transitions to “Let Me Be Your Bride,” a taut ’80s-feeling pop tune that was unsuccessfully home recorded on the 2011 Banquet Years EP, but that here displays just how tight a band Virgin of the Birds is. (The kind of work that went into this album—not only is it full in concept and flawless in execution; the working band plays together as though they’ve been touring for a year.) “Every Revelry,” with its wistful line “And in time we both shall feel ashamed of every revelry we’ve felt compelled to claim,” follows. The album truly starts to excel with the song “Nine Sisters,” an acoustic guitar and subway saxophone tune—yeah, that somehow works, subway atonal saxophone and muted guitar chords. Piano and surprisingly adept guitar lines lead us into “From Peking,” where the narrator offers insight on the limitations of poets who so want to know the night—a theme continued later on “The Serpent Plume.”
In my mind, a story unfolds. The confident narrator of “They Wake,” a postmodern Whitman, maybe, fades to a well-traveled if seemingly emotionally distant voice who admits limitations. Whereas Whitman never saw an ocean he couldn’t swim, the narrator in Winter Seeds has, you know, “a moment with Daphne in St. Claire” and when he wants his moment with that cleansing baptism you expect in a proper narrative, he observes “you shed your city clothes for what the river knows and now you’re soaking wet.” The closing songs, “Drunk on Grudges,” “The Talisman and Siobhan,” provide, for me, a pair of epilogues. “Drunk on Grudges” even mentions dreaming of denouements, referring, to me, to the proper defeated denouement during “The Serpent Plume.”
And damn am I sorry for this boring interpretation. You daydream with this music, with lyrics so dense.
Winter Seeds will be released in April 2014. It is immediately accessible and complete in voice, and it will have an impact with whoever hears it. I know the people who made it. According to Jon Rooney, I even am responsible for introducing bandmates and producers. I honestly have no idea how that happened. All I know is, I saw a dude who seemed like he was coming at music from a completely different angle, who seemed to have figured out a lot more than I had. I encouraged him in every way I could, but I honestly didn’t expect these results.
Virgin of the Birds will release their record April 5, 2014 at Conor Byrne with Yucca Mountain and my own band, The Foghorns.