Genre categories can be useful when trying to describe the sound of a band’s music to someone. However, when those categories are used to pigeonhole rather than helpfully distinguish, shackling an artist to a specific genre they couldn’t break associations with if they tried, then the genre distinctions become useless and damaging. So, it’s a really good thing that it’s impossible to pigeonhold the Athens, Georiga-rooted Futurebirds. Recalling a more loose, psychedelic version of Band of Horses, the same free rock-n-roll spirit that engines Drive-By Truckers, flourishes of summer surf rock a la Days by Real Estate, and the folky reverb of older My Morning Jacket, Futurebirds are the best indie-folk-americana-psychedelic-country-southern-surf-rock band you may or may not have heard of.
Comprised of six members (Thomas Johnson, Carter King, Dennis Love, Brannen Miles, Daniel Womack, and Payton Bradford) during the recording of Baba Yaga (named for a supernatural, deformed, woods-dwelling female figure in Slavic folklore whose legend reminded the band of the turmoil involved in getting the album released), Futurebirds is a band in the truest sense of the word. Five members contributed songs to the album (Payton Bradford has since left to pursue another career path), which is a bit hard to believe considering the cohesiveness of emotion and sound found throughout the entirety of this, their second full-length release following 2010’s Hampton’s Lullaby and first for Oxford, Mississippi-based independent record label Fat Possum.
The first thing that grabbed me about this album is that it’s absolutely drenched in sweet-as-honeysuckle pedal steel guitar, and not just on a song here and there; it is a defining characterisitic of the band’s music and the mood they create. The optimistic yet nostalgic opening track “Virginia Slims” ends with the kind of spacey pedal steel jam that could revive the soul of the staunchest, most cycnical country music traditionalist, while follow-up track “Serial Bowls,” the most up-tempo song on the album, uses pedal steel flourishes to accent chiming surf-rock guitar solos. On “American Cowboy,” Dennis Love uses the instrument to such beautifully chilling effect that you may find yourself weeping right along with it. These first three songs set such a high bar that, when I first listened to the album, I wasn’t sure it could be maintained. But it largely is; even surpassed. And at 13 tracks and nearly 67 minutes, sweepingly so. After the defiant melancholy of “American Cowboy” (“I want to be an American Cowboy/and I ain’t ever moving away…/You will not be hating me in the morning”), the band switches it up with pedal steel solos and thrashing guitars full of giddy nostalgia on “Tan Lines.”
The folky and heavily percussive “Felix Helix” has a sing-a-long quality that draws you in until the very last ooh-ooh-ooh‘s of the choir-like closing. “Dig” contains a tempo change in the first minute and a half that sends the song soaring and serves as a perfect introduction to the second half of the album. It also contains one of the album’s standout lyrics: “I turn the lights off now when I get home/I’m going to love you if it takes all goddamn night long.” Both “Keith and Donna” and closing track “St. Summercamp” aim for epic (the former is six and a half minutes long, the latter eight and a half) and succeed with assured confidence where a lesser band might have let the songs sink into self-absorbed pretentiousness. “The Light” is just that, the lightest track on the album, serving as a needed reprieve from the emotional intensity that surrounds it.
The best segment of the album may indeed be its last five songs, from the shimmering tremolo that opens “Death Awaits” to the twangy, whistling, psychedelia that closes the aforementioned “St. Summercamp.” On full display throughout these songs is one of the strongest aspects of Futurebirds’sound: the ability to let their songs breathe. There is room to live in them. Like a film director who allows scenes to develop slowly and organically, who isn’t prone to fast cuts and quick edits, Futurebirds are masters of taking their time. Baba Yaga is in no kind of rush to get to anywhere in particular. Nothing is shoved in your face or emotionally manipulating. Instead, there is subtlety. There is space. There is the satisfaction that comes when an album seeps slowly, and over the patience of several listens, deeply into your bones. As melancholy a tone as the album sets, it is still wildly uplifting, as if the band had Thoreau’s quote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” hanging on the studio wall and said, “Let’s make an album that inspires people to be the opposite of that.” It is an album made without the ADD generation anywhere in mind.
Perhaps the most striking example of this is the song “Heavy Weights,” which, with its strummed banjo, accentend percussion, and understated cello, has one of the folkiest arrangements on the record. While lyrically the song speaks to such bleak themes as the inevitability of death, musically the song is miraculous in its ability to stir up in the soul something almost spiritual, certainly inspirational. Beginning with the refreshing honesty of “Too late for words to say, I try to speak them away/I bring my lies to the table,” the song then proceeds to crescendo into a chorus of multi-part harmony with the words “When you die” repeated over and over. It’s a powerful moment that in a way redeems the bleakness of death’s inevitability — makes it just not matter. What matters is living here, loving here, being inspired here, creating here, today, giving no forethought to death or credence to fear. Every album has that one song that jumps out at them upon first listen, no matter how good the rest of the album is, and for me “Heavy Weights” is that song. It resurrected my spirit when I first heard it, and still does. It has given me a context through which I listen to and largely interpret the rest of the album.
Somewhat regrettably, the lyrics for Baba Yaga were not included with the CD and I couldn’t find them anywhere on the Internet. I’d love to know every word these guys are singing, but I’ve been listening to the album since it was released on April 15th and have only made out about half so far. But I also think that’s part of the beauty of it: with each subsequent listen a single line may become clear and the whole thing will come together just a little bit more. It speaks to the power of the music Futurebirds creates that the lyrics don’t immediately matter. They’ve created such an exquisite atmosphere of sweeping Southern sounds and emotional authenticity with musicianship and melody alone, that knowing every line would almost be too much to take in. If the best albums take you on a journey, as I believe they do and should, then Baba Yaga is one of constant discovery, slow reveals, and rewarded patience.
As stated earlier, this isn’t an album for the ADD generation.
— Richard Combs
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