REVIEW: The Birdwatcher: Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew
The Birdwatcher: Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew [Arena Rock, 2002]
Three words? Please shush? ... There.
As Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew begins, the listener is lulled with attic sounds and the quiet beauty of bells and horns (synthesized, mind you). This is the warm ambient territory of Boards of Canada and an instrumental Kings of Convenience. Drums pick things up, two minutes in, but it's still a lazy, sunday afternoon beat. Acoustic guitar weaves new layers of atmosphere... and then there's some voice. Just a dusky, fuzzy "Uhhhhhhh" - but it's there, like the groan of an errant Goth who somehow wandered into the studio.
Then the track ends.
Now, the Birdwatcher gets away with this when you listen the first time. The three minutes of hypnotic morning-music is enough to soften even the vigilant listener. But once you've shaken the amber reverie, once you're able to pay attention, that series of "Uhhhhhh"s can't be ignored. In fact, it must be questioned. You listen, you listen again, you smile pleasantly, and then you realize: it sounds awful. The instrumental is nice - it's mellow, it's friendly - but the vocal track is cheesy, overdramatic atmospherics.
This would be forgivable if it wasn't indicative of this disc's primary (but not singular) flaw. The album's second track, "Empty Boat", shows that singing is going to be prevalent from here on in, and Dan Matz's voice isn't going to get any less filtered, any less affected. At its best, his melodic rasp comes out somewhere between Ed Harcourt and the new, aging Bono. At its worst, I feel as if I'm being subjected to the narrator of some gothic concept album. The female backup vocals on "Empty Boat" show a potential for pop loveliness, but Matz predominates, drowning the song's pretty sounds in a forced melancholy.
Throughought Afternoon Tales..., superb instrumental atmosphere is undermined by ugly alt-folk. On "Drawn," strummed acoustic guitar mingles with sublime organ flourishes and echoes, but then - imagine this in a strained, whinsome, indie-rock delivery - "I have never been / In a den like this / Filled with rage and hunger..." Blessedly, the second half of the track rises into a feedback-laden guitar wash.
Still, the production here is top notch, and the Birdwatcher's ear for timbre and harmonies never ceases to impress. The instrumental "Sunset Park" is plucky, colourful, and as well-arranged as a Penguin Cafe Orchestra tune. Though on the whole, the album's aural style is a little too sameish for my tastes, there's much to be said for a mastery of that hazy summer vibe. Matz, despite his atrocious desire to be an indie songwriter (the "Uhhhh"s return on "Astoria 5PM"), demonstrates true vision as an electro-acoustic composer. Nevertheless, the beauty of his compositions isn't enough to make up for the sung nonsense or the stylistic apathy. For the moment, I'll set Afternoon Tales... aside and imagine a disc where the Birdcatcher's stripped-back acoustica sits as a foundation for wooly, not-so-self-important vocals. Like the Beta Band, but not Scottish.