TAKING A NEW APPROACH The new album from Swain and Lamb leads with loftier concerns than past efforts. [Photo 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 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 last month, and the duo will stop by One Longfellow Square for a two-show night on Saturday.
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, Connecticut) 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.
"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 California 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.