Friday, April 26, 2013

Album Review - The Futurebirds, Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga
The Futurebirds
Fat Possum Records
Released April 16, 2013

Making one excellent album is a daunting task for any band; pulling it off back-to-back takes rare skill. With each successive record, the task becomes exponentially more difficult, but you've got to get to second base before you can reach third. The Athens-based Futurebirds are early in the game, but two LP's in, so far, so very good. 

Baba Yaga, the follow-up to 2010's Hampton's Lullaby, sees the 'Bird's shift their distinct brand of galactic alt country to a more mature and contemplative space. The grind of heavy time on the Road leaves a positive and weary mark. The move is more evolution than revolution, but it's a big step forward that was almost three years in the making. (The band had extended trouble finding the right label for their sophomore effort, eventually landing with the Oxford, Mississippi based Fat Possum label.) Growing up isn't an easy thing for a Rock Band, but the process starts here.  

The beer-shower singalong choruses of Hamptons ("Yer Not Dead," "Sam Jones") are nearly absent, being exchanged for more nuanced instrumental crescendos. The tableau of Baba's is wide and thickly layered with sound, never noise. The production value is improved versus Hampton's. Dennis Love's soaring pedal steel flourishes weave themselves throughout and serve as the unifying thread in the band's sound. The other colors are more subdued. The six-string guitar work is more rhythmic than melodic, with few (unneeded) big ticket Rock solos. There is little space in the mix, but it never feels crowded. The lyrical themes have matured, with the listener finding less conquest and more contest. If Hampton's was an afternoon on the beach, Baba is a campfire on the sand under the stars. 

All hands are on the songwriting deck, with guitarist Carter King carrying the bulk of the water. King's irresistible album high-point, "Tan Lines," builds on its rollicking pedal steel hook with a sex and sand lyrical theme that exudes longing and compromise. In the next breath, King has the listener pondering the un-ponderable while channeling Tennessee Fire era Jim James in the stare-and-sway "Death Awaits." When the tempo drops, a contemplative cosmic feel pervades, always propelled by Love's steel, e.g., the spiraling dreamscape of guitarist Daniel Womack's "Felix Helix" and low plains haze of multi-instrumentalist Thomas Johnson's "American Cowboy." Now-departed drummer (and Dead scholar) Payton Bradford evokes Gram Parsons while stumping the listener with a barrage of unanswered questions in the hoist-your-beer instant classic, "Keith and Donna." The subtle sound experimentation built into the album-closing "St. Summertime" (think Z era My Morning Jacket with a dash of Sky Blue Sky Wilco) gives a tantalizing hint at what could come next.  

The album could stand to shed a few songs, but the excess material is neither superflous nor offensive. It's a compelling piece of work by a band staying faithful to its name. Stay tuned.   

[Editor's Note: While you should absolutely buy a copy of the record and support these artists, you can preview Baba Yaga courtesy of Paste magazine here.]

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