Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime
Signature Sounds – 4 May 2018
Following on from their Signature Sounds debut with last year’s American Flowers EP, JT Nero and Allison Russell now deliver a full-length album of all new material that expands their musical palette while remaining true to their core sound.
It actually opens with a minute’s worth of Russell humming against a backdrop of piano and strummed banjo on Now/Sunlight before a funky guitar riff and keys introduces Never Go Back, Nero taking lead on a vibrant soulful love song that comes with falsetto, handclaps, syncopated drum beat and even Russell singing in the background in French.
The title track, a celebration of love in troubled times, takes the tempo down for a dreamy, organ-washed Celtic-tinged soul-country duet climaxing in a soaring guitar solo, the lyrics of which reference both doo-wop classic Duke of Earl and Irish ballad Star of the County Down, the pace gathering only slightly for Travelers, the tumbling rhythm reminiscent of Mary Black’s Still Believing, the rootless-themed lyrics nodding to Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home.
Nero’s sandpapery tones and Russell’s ability to sustain a note are in evidence on Try, another slow swaying soulful duet, while, in contrast, Lodestar pumps up the drumbeat and rhythm for a song about not letting past heartbreak hold you down that shares a musical kinship with Dancing In The Dark. That theme of resurrection spills over into the more rock and roll uptempo Roll Away with its handclap snare shuffle rhythm, organ fills, twangy guitar, Sanskrit derived greeting (namaste) and a jubilantly effervescent positivity chorus reminding that “pain will come and pain will go” and that we should make the most of the world’s transitory nature.
The duo’s harmonies, matching their very different vocals, are heard to superb effect on the six-minute Baton Rouge with its jazzy shades and country blues inflections, a co-penned number that uses the 2016 floods as a metaphor for rising from adversity. It’s back to a funky guitar riff with Roisin Starchild, Russell taking lead on a southern country soul (struck from the same ore as Clarence Carter’s Patches) storysong reminiscence of the titular butcher’s daughter, a four feet tall and sixty pound wildcat who would wade into the school bullies, but who nursed a hidden sadness that saw her run away when she was just 12.
Starting out with just Russell singing against a simple banjo backing before strummed guitar and drums kick in, Nero adding harmonies, Superlover is a gently jogging call for a universal hug to warm the world. It ends, then, with a final Nero composition, the jazzed blues, hustling rhythm, funky groove and shared vocals of Derecho, the title a reference to a line of intense windstorms (and mentioned previously in Roll Away), a metaphor for weathering the storms life throws at us and “laughing in the sunlight” after they pass, the track fading away in a manner that suggests the dance stretching out forever.
Recorded against the backdrop of division brought out about by the Trump election, the album has love as its throughline. For Russell “Any act of love is an act of bravery”, the songs “snapshots of covenants, big and small, of trust and understanding.” She adds, “We want to give people some good news, and we want them to be able to dance when they hear it.” Consider both boxes duly ticked.
Birds of Chicago are currently on tour in the UK,remaining dates below.
Birds of Chicago UK Tour Dates
MAY 11 FRI – Calstock Hall, Calstock
MAY 12 SAT – Seven Arts, Leeds
MAY 13 SUN – The Live Room@Caroline Social Club, Shipley
MAY 14 MON – The Lexington Presented by Green Note, London
MAY 15 TUE – The Stables, Milton Keynes
MAY 16 WED – St. Nicholas’s Church, Baulking
MAY 17 THU – St. John the Baptist Church, Finchingfield
MAY 18 FRI – Gulbenkian presented by Whitstable Sessions, Canterbury
MAY 20 SUN – Auditorium Mareel, Shetland (with Arthur Nicholson)
More details and full tour dates here http://www.birdsofchicago.com/tour/