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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

ROUTES & BRANCHES
home of the americana diaspora
April 25, 2015
Scott Foley

This Episode started off pretty hard.  New, manic songs from Alabama Shakes, Lee Bains III and Left Lane Cruiser laid into the first hour like a buzzsaw.  While we eventually settled into a more familiar americana groove, debuts from Giant Sand and Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke assured that the only predictable thing on R&B is the unpredictable. 

Tethered to the cure
I focus on the pain
Transformation comes
Tempered by the flame
And if this flesh should fail
Devour me from within
And then my soul prevail
Free to roam again  

Heck of a way to start an album ... Morganeve Swain is half of the Rhode Island duo Brown Bird.  With David Lamb, she built an uncompromising sort of folk music, with roots as deep in american music as in the sounds of Middle Eastern and Eastern European cultures.  Lamb succumbed to leukemia in 2013, in the wake of two excellent Brown Bird releases, 2011's Salt For Salt and 2013's Fits of Reason.  The duo continued to create music during his treatment, and Swain saw the sessions to their completion with the release of Axis Mundi.  

Though Lamb began work on several of these pieces prior to his diagnosis, it’s nearly impossible not to listen to songs like the opener, "Focus", in the shadow of his passing.  Likewise, it’s remarkable that Swain pursued these fragments to their conclusion with the help of friends and family.  Especially given the dark nature of the project – it's not a feel good record, but a document that was made under the steady gaze of Lamb's last days.  Axis Mundi provides us the exceedingly rare opportunity to hear from the front lines of mortality, the words of a man looking death in the eyes, like a boxer pausing mid-round to record his reflections.  

Like all of Brown Bird's releases, the songs of Axis Mundi establish a dialog between the diverse elements of Swain and Lamb's music.  "Bannermen", "Blood From the Tree" and "Ephraim" are built upon Swain's fiddle and a frantic, driving percussion.  Pieces such as "Patiently Awaiting" and "Raging Squall", on the other hand, give us a more of a prog-folk sound.  The commons elements drawing the songs together are David Lamb's electric guitar and the duo's unreal harmonies.  The more exotic tunes are eventually corralled into more familiar territory by the dark electric buzz, and often the more familiar offerings can be lent a touch of mystery when the world music elements are introduced.

"Focus", that opener, comes across like a hymn, with Lamb's repeated mantra gradually entwined with Swain's countersong.  There is an understandable undercurrent of spiritual searching throughout Axis Mundi, a term indicating the meeting point of the spiritual and the temporal.  Despite the circumstances surrounding the record's creation, it's by no means an "odds 'n sods" gathering of leftovers.  Swain has ushered into being a fully realized work, a complete musical statement that serves as a progression from Fits of Reason.  In the months since Lamb's passing, Swain has toured with Devil Makes Three, and has released music under the moniker The Huntress.  

Brown Bird's last album draws to a close with the sweet and innocent statement of MorganEve Swain's "Tortured Boy", a tune she wrote for Lamb early in their relationship.  Streaming from the midst of the darkness and doubt that came before, the song strikes like a bright bolt through gray clouds.  Brown Bird was a true musical partnership, leaving us with a too brief but fulfilling body of work.   

We can find paradise in the midst of this hell
If we tilt our heads just right
And let our shackles go 
  

*  Uncle Tupelo, "Before I Break"  No Depression  (Columbia, 90)
*  Great Peacock, "Broken Hearted Fool"  Making Ghosts  (This is American Music, 15)
*  Pokey LaFarge, "Cairo, Illinois"  Something In the Water  (Rounder, 15)
*  Alabama Shakes, "The Greatest"  Sound and Color  (ATO, 15)
*  Shouting Matches, "Gallup, NM"  Grownass Men  (Middle West, 13)
*  Rick Steff, "Rick's Booogie, Pt 2"  Rick's Booogie  (Archer, 13)
*  Kristin Diable, "Time Will Wait"  Create Your Own Mythology  (Speakeasy, 15)
*  Swamp Dogg, "Total Destruction To Your Mind"  Total Destruction To Your Mind  (Alive Naturalsound, 70)
*  Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, "Sweet Disorder"  single  (Sub Pop, 15)  D
*  T Model Ford & Gravelroad, "Someone's Knocking On My Door"  Rock & Roll Is a  Beautiful Thing  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)
*  Left Lane Cruiser, "Tres Borrachos"  Dirty Spliff Blues  (Alive Naturalsound, 15)  D
*  Shinyribs, "East TX Rust"  Well After Awhile  (Nine Mile, 10)
*  Jason Isbell, "Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings"  Beck Song Reader  (Capitol, 14)
*  Eilen Jewell, "Hallelujah Band"  Sundown Over Ghost Town  (Signature Sounds, 15)
*  Simon Joyner, "You Got Under My Skin"  Grass Branch & Bone  (Woodsist, 15)
*  Porter, "Hardest Healin'"  This Red Mountain  (Porter, 15)
*  Tom VandenAvond w/Larry & His Flask, "Jackrabbit, Arizona"  Endtimes  (Hillgrass Bluebillly, 14)
*  Hip Hatchet, "Coward's Luck"  Hold You Like a Harness  (Hip Hatchet, 15)
*  Anna Tivel, "Five Dollar Bill"  Before Machines  (Fluff & Gravy, 14)
*  Giant Sand, "Man On a String"  Heartbreak Pass  (New West, 15)  D
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "If the Beasts Should Hunt Us"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)  D
^  Brown Bird, "Patiently Awaiting"  Axis Mundi  (Supply & Demand, 15)
*  John Moreland, "American Flags In Black & White"  High On Tulsa Heat  (Old Omens, 15)
*  Patty Loveless, "Crazy Arms"  Sleepless Nights  (Time Life, 08)
*  Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell, "No Way Out of Here"  Sing Into My Mouth  (Black Cricket/Brown Records, 15)  D
*  Chris Stapleton, "When the Stars Come Out"  Traveller  (Mercury, 15)
*  Shelby Lynne, "Paper Van Gogh"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)

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