Album Review: Virgin of the Birds – Secret Kids (Ball of Wax Midwives a Lit-rock Masterpiece)

Virgin of the Birds - Secret KidsVirgin of the Birds – Secret Kids
(2016, Abandoned Love/Song, by Toad)

I.

Virgin of the Birds is celebrating the release of a uniquely outstanding record October 22, 2016 at Substation. Secret Kids, the band’s sophomore LP (out today), is unabashedly tasteful, complex, and intelligent. The perfect pop album, an album so pure and expressive that a 40-year-old music fan can approach it without suspending disbelief, Secret Kids is that singular record that may, in a decade, be all that is remembered from the songwriter scene here in Seattle, and that would be okay.

It is hard to imagine any reader of Ball of Wax not being familiar with Virgin of the Birds. Jon Rooney and his band have been a sizeable force since Volume 5. Rooney additionally has become an organizing force—he’s the very tall gentleman who has helped maintain this blog, designed posters, and done things like play bass for our children’s groups.

He’s so fundamental to this organization, he has almost become invisible. He’s written about so many of us, that when he becomes the subject, a weird kind of negation occurs—I noticed this also with Levi Fuller when he released his excellent album The Wonders That There Are to great reviews in 2014. While I know he received excellent reviews, I hear from him so often, it felt like nothing stuck. He was still Levi, the guy who keeps everything running. And I get worried the same thing will happen with Jon Rooney.

And there’s a conflict here in that Jon and I have been reviewing each other since 2011. Then there’s the fact that I encouraged him, extremely forcefully, to record his first LP, Winter Seeds. I recommended the studio, the producer. He recruited members of my band. Then I actually played guitar on one of the songs of his new album.

With all that shared interest, this may not be the most seem the most unbiased of reviews. But let me put forward some other caveats. I am slightly competitive. So I have the frustration of knowing that a man with access to the exact same resources as I had far exceeded me. Even when I played guitar on a track, he followed it with a guitar solo more exceptional in tone and originality. So, objectively, the new album from Virgin of the Birds is so outstanding that I’m humbled.

II.

Now to get into the details of this landmark. First off, I have not used apostasy in a sentence. I also do not smoke French cigarettes. I thought the two were codependent. Then VotB opens with “I guess it’s plausible apostasy.” Delivered with partially voiced, down-strummed guitar like Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Hard to imagine a more confident, fully lived-in opening. Like “Roadrunner” from The Modern Lovers, or even “Changes” from Bowie’s Hunky Dory, you have a whole new way of speaking, translated into distinct rock music, what with the backbeat, etc.

There’s a tradition of strong narrative in rock, using the textures of sounds and lyrics to create little universes of the psyche. Opening tracks become a big bang the same way opening chapters work in great American novels. So “I guess it’s plausible apostasy” works like “Call me Ishmael,” or, still more accurately “April is the cruelest month.”

After this year’s Republican Convention, which featured an electric guitar in its banner, I’d have assumed the guitar was as impotent an instrument to involve in an intelligent discussion as an AK-47. Not so. The electric guitar can still be used to communicate, to help poetry penetrate the back of the mind without first being rejected by critical facilities.

That’s the function of the musical arrangements throughout this record. Virgin of the Birds–clearly now at least a closely working duo, as the drumming and production are now large parts of the product–constructs a wistful poetry that escapes our current age. Jon sings of love and lust filtered through failed religious studies, an appreciation of Classic Greek, and monk-like appreciation of underground music, and then he uses deft guitar and arrangements like a syringe to jam this into the brain. The effect is shattering. This is a “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the self-aware music fan. (BTW, I took a break from writing to beg Jon to record T.S. Eliot’s classic. After an offer of $20 and a beer, he said he’d do it. So that’s in writing.)

All this is to say with “Cardinal Points,” Virgin of the Birds declares a new genre, saves the electric guitar, and provides a safe retreat from the dumbed down existence the bludgeons us from the second we check our phones.

Quickly, track 2 is a smooth-ass pop rock single, and surprisingly it delivers a thesis statement of the record. A contemporary, dispirited “Idiot Wind” with a prom dance bassline, “Spooky, Stony, Barely Over Thirty” starts as a cruel put down. This album has a lot of put downs, often seemingly of a particular type of suburban East Coast woman. In this track, we hear at “barely over 30, she decided it was time to make a run/it was time to put down every revelry that she found/and go back home to Wilmington.”

There is no greater symbol of acquiescence, of settling in every way, at least from my discussions in cheap bars and restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, than retiring from city life and fleeing for Delaware. A Wilmington could be slang for those riding boots young suburban wives wear.

But this record is full of life. And insults are followed with insight. And a shocking amount of balance is presented here for the stupidity of putting down suburban life and chasing big city idols.

Here I’m discussing only lyrics. The song is actually a wonder of craft that matches the ironies of the lines. From the you-will-come-to-the-dance-floor-now bass line opening, to the bridges that drop the floor out and show you’re flying or floating or at least not falling that hard, this is a pop song with energy that only a band that’s well-versed in rock can put together. In other words, it’d be hard to write this music if you weren’t a good deal over 30.

I hope “I Am a Bad Dreamer” also becomes a single—it is the perfect B-side. I believe this song, “Victor Bockris,” and “Summer Palace” will be the tracks that define the record. This is an album with five hook-laden pop songs, and five ruminative B-sides.

The basic chord structure of “I am a Bad Dreamer,” the song based on partially voiced piano chords, cool jazz-style drums, and a dude confessing his shitty deeds, and then bass solos, two bass solos. It’s a hell of a thing. It’s the magic act of the album. More than perfection.

III.

Other tracks on this record, I’ve been familiar with. “Spanish Accusations” is masculine confessional poetry set to a doo-wop progression. “Minmae Shall Be Revealed” is flawless romanticism, with none other than Colin J. Nelson demonstrating a masterful guitar solo. “Secret Kids” is bulletproof pop.

I play guitar and sing on “The Queen of Sweden.” To be asked to play on a recording for a band I admired was an accomplishment for me. (I’ve been asked before, but somehow I usually am given the wrong date or address for the session.) It is strange to sit in with a band like this. I prepped a part, but that part—what I thought was tasteful surf-rock chords–was actually rejected (thank God). So the solos I play were spur of the moment. I had no familiarity with them. To hear the recording is to hear a stranger. I think that speaks something to the power of the vision Jon had with this record.

“Victor Bockris” is a fucking sad description of that moment of decay in a relationship and a love song for the lost experiences of discussing books.

“Summer Palace” is a sweet surprise. For an album that I’ve compared to Hunky Dory and Blood on the Tracks, an album in general of sonic clarity and extreme composure, “Summer Palace” is a remarkable gremlin. It features members of a favorite Seattle band, The Crush, bringing their Velvet Underground-meets-Saturday-morning-serial vibe to Jon’s precise songwriting. The result is joyful, loose, and somehow even more poignant. I place this with “I Am a Bad Dreamer” as an impossible accomplishment that appeared only once in this world and was somehow documented.

“Mothering Sunday” is, of course, the tasteful after dinner muscatel. Dizzying but smooth and sweet.

IV

It’s nine years since I met Levi Fuller. We stood next to each other at a Hollow Earth Radio event and discussed Icelandic pastry. Since that time, I’ve been amazed at the bands he’s discovered, and I’ve tried to support everyone I meet. I have bookshelves of CDs. T-shirts that I hope to pass down to my kids.

There are the days where I wonder why the hell we all do this. Is it just to make great artifacts? I think we’ve long passed the time where we believe making music will be a mass media phenomenon. We’ve got kids. The world is shit. Why spend all this time around an abandoned art form? Why not dedicate myself to things like tweets or car refurbishment reality shows?

This Virgin of the Birds album, Secret Kids, is significant for me as a musician and as a fan. I have a relationship with this band because I was an unabashed fan. I found a band that had integrity and intelligence and provided escape. Because Levi Fuller discovered this band, and launched this community, when I spoke up about my appreciation, I started a dialogue. It is likely that VotB would be making fantastic EPs, and that I’d still be listening to them, if I hadn’t sent constant emails, etc, about recording in a studio, about going bigger and more pristine. But because of our community, they now make studio-polished LPs, and on this, an LP that may find a broader audience, I actually got a chance to partake. This must be what those Kickstarter people feel, assuming there are any people who ever contributed to Kickstarter who weren’t just rich relatives.

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4 Responses to Album Review: Virgin of the Birds – Secret Kids (Ball of Wax Midwives a Lit-rock Masterpiece)

  1. Mike Votava says:

    I just purchased Virgin of the Birds’ Secret Kids album. I would not have done so unlesss I stumbled across this article via FB.

    Thank you for grabbing my attention! I feel like I’m going to get a lot of joy out this music.

  2. Levi Fuller says:

    You, sir, are a hero.

  3. Bart says:

    Thanks to Mike and to everyone who emailed me about this article. I was glad to write it, and I really appreciate the positive feedback.

  4. Jon Rooney says:

    I may have been a bit to hard on Wilmington on “Spooky” – Delaware’s has its charms. Aubrey Plaza is from there, and Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine met at prep school there.

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