BURNING BRIGHT Swain and Lamb. [Photos by Corey Grayhorse]
Brown Bird's David Lamb and MorganEve Swain challenge themselves (and anyone who still insists on calling them a folk band) on their stunning new album, Fits of Reason (via local label Supply & Demand). The devil still dances all over Lamb's lyrics, though this time around he's mingling with modern-day Western thinkers and 18th-century authors whose views and writings have clearly inspired his intellectual wordplay.
The foot-stomping/clip-clopping structures and Swain's cello and fiddle remain steeped in American roots, bluegrass, and jazz, and the duo's penchant for incorporating Middle Eastern and European rhythms is fully intact. But it's the addition of electric guitar and bass that lends yet another layer to Brown Bird's distinctive sound.
Brown Bird's nationwide tour kicked off this week, and the duo will stop by the Met for a hometown throwdown on Friday.
Here's their backstory: Lamb began writing and recording under the name Brown Bird in 2003 while living in Seattle. The moniker was inspired by his dog at the time, a brown Shar-Pei named Bird.
"I just figured the name was simple and ambiguous. I didn't want it to imply any particular genre, but rather left wide open for interpretation" Lamb said when we spoke over the phone earlier this week, just before heading for the first show in Thomaston, Maine. He released Bottom of the Sea in 2008 and met Swain (born and raised in Newtown, CT) and local guitarist Mike Samos here while on a solo tour and asked them to join him; The Devil Dancing (2009) was their first team effort (Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson also appear on that disc). The current formation is a full-time duo, with occasional guests like Swain's brother, violinist Spencer (of Zox fame).
"Having just the two of us in the band is both limiting and freeing at the same time," Swain told me. "We can't layer a lot of different things if the two of us can't reproduce it live."
Lamb and Swain rolled the dice and left their full-time jobs (at a shipyard and coffee shop, respectively) in 2011 right before the release of Salt for Salt. Momentum had been building steadily: they accepted an invite to support local friends the Low Anthem on a European tour in 2010, did a string of West Coast dates with the CA trio the Devil Makes Three, and made a successful appearance at the 2011 Newport Folk Festival (which led to a well-received main stage slot in '12). Salt for Salt was the duo's breakout album; national publications such as Paste, Magnet, and Under the Radar took notice, and NPR deemed it one of the best folk albums of 2011 — though Swain will be the first to inform/remind us that "Brown Bird is not a folk band."
That disclaimer is reinforced by Fits of Reason's adventurous sonic palette; Lamb and Swain stated in separate phone interviews that they strive for innovation during the album's writing and recording process. "We are always trying to push ourselves beyond our own abilities, to keep things interesting and challenging," said Lamb.
The duo self-produced the new album at Machines With Magnets in Pawtucket; Lamb praised Keith Souza and his staff: "Keith and those guys are the best kind of engineers, in that they don't interfere with the creative process, but they will push you to the limit in order to get the very best take possible."
HITTING THE BOOKS
Leaving your day job behind in favor of a musical career obviously has its benefits, including one advantage Lamb has applied to his craft-— reading. And lots of it, particularly during those long drives between shows. The Fits of Reason press notes cites lyrical influences ranging from philosophers such as Plato and Omar Khayyam to modern-day British-American author Christopher Hitchens.
"I really appreciate the luxury of having more time to read now," Lamb said. "When I would come home from working at the shipyard, I wasn't really reading because I was always exhausted."
MorganEve cited the literary presence in the new work: "[David] was totally immersed in reading different philosophies and religious teachings," she said. "It dominated all of our conversations, and he would incorporate some of that into the lyrics, so it was sort of all-encompassing."
Lamb and Swain share an apartment in Warren, which includes a small "music room" where the songs are usually fleshed out. Lamb's consumption of the written word is trumped only by his consumption of coffee while working from home, while Swain prefers the nighttime setting accompanied by a glass or two of whiskey.
The aforementioned Fits of Reason press release opens with a quote from 18th-century author Thomas Paine (who penned Common Sense in 1776), which led to the album title: "Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it." The notes state that Paine directly inspired the "flurry of cerebral themes" and that the album "grapples with the human condition in a smooth but unapologetic departure from the band's previous release."
The remarkably different approach is immediately apparent. Salt for Salt opens with "Fingers To the Bone," clearly depicting Lamb's exhausted state of mind: "I've worked my fingers to the bone, not a pretty little penny have I got to show/I ain't looking for much, just a little bit of rest by the side of the road." But Fits of Reason leads with loftier concerns on "Seven Hells": "The seventh hell inside impales and divides us/And scatters our skin with the seed/Of our deeds devoured, of other worlds showered/As our demon celestials bleed."
Skim through the lyrics on any Brown Bird album and it should come as no surprise to learn that Lamb was the son of a minister; he left his home and the Catholic Church behind following high school.
"My dad's background has been ingrained in me, but I also never stropped seeking out my own beliefs and exploring different ideologies," Lamb told me.
And that makes a song like "Barren Lakes" that much more intriguing, when Lamb sings, "We'll bathe in the blood of salvation's name/fast and feast upon its flesh and prey."