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on 23 July 2009
It is said that upon hearing Bowerbirds, Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver fame, no longer wished to release For Emma Forever Ago for fear of having been trumped. He needn't have worried his beardy head because whilst Upper Air, and its worthy predecessor, Hymns For A Dark Horse, are both high calibre alt-folk, singer-songwriting releases, Vernon held the trump card. Bowerbirds are boyfriend and girlfriend and live in an Airstream mobilehome in North Carolina and possess a certain degree of smugness, acquired by their enviable existence and simple way of making a living. Vernon had clearly lost his Emma, and as such his brand of confession was cathartic and atmospheric. Upper Air is like that, only less so.

It is difficult not to compare the records further. For example, the sparse harmonies of `Ghost Lift' are a straight lift from For Emma. However, there are other valid points of comparison. Phil Moore's vocal recalls Andrew Bird, as do several tracks, notably the opener, `House Of Diamonds', after its minimalist opening when the strings arrive. His ladyfriend Beth Tacular adds accordion and the occasional reedy vocal to the mix.

The biggest point of reference however is their own debut, Hymns For A Dark Horse. In essence, this is a verbatim retread, pleasant afresh, but still not revolutionary. There are notable elements of progression however, `Silver Clouds' is their strongest track to date, the purely acoustic and poignant `Skinny Love' of Upper Air, until the tempo is upped with 40 seconds to go. `Crooked Lust's finger picking adds variety and introduces a desire to return the album, which without may well not have been present thanks to the relative non-event of rolling album closer `This Day'. Upper Air isn't stratospheric, nor really a spreading of wings, but Bowerbirds are certainly in the ascendancy.
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I cannot tell you how till this day "Northern Lights" managed to appear on my I Pod. Frankly I had never heard of the Bowerbirds and my life was no worse for it; that said it is now vastly improved.

"Northern Lights" is a wonderful country love song that is sparse in its modesty and yet it gently boils until you appreciate the full majesty of it all. See the band perform it brilliantly on You Tube live from the Digital Arts Entertainment Lab. It is pitch perfect, avoids becoming overwrought and has Appalachian charm that many country songs sorely lack. I love the second verse in particular -

"And I don't need you to catch my wanderin mind
And I don't expect a southern girl to know the northern lights
And all I want is your eyes
In the morning as we wake
For a short while"

This album and the excellent debut "Hymns for a Dark horse" (check out the accordion driven "In our talons") are not going to grab you instantly. It is a slow almost ponderous grower but it when it clicks is becomes a true friend. NME described it as delicate, cloud-drifting Americana which is spot on and is demonstrated most clearly on the surging "Teeth". Vocalist Phil Moore reminds me of the great Elvis Perkins while his girlfriend the uniquely named Beth Tacular provides strong melodic support throughout (surely her friends must nickname her "Spec"?).

Other standouts include "House of Diamonds" where Ms Taculars singing comes to the fore throughout the chorus and the strong lyrics declaring that "You are free from the greed of your culture / you are free from the lust for the luster of the diamond houses in the city's cluster."

"Chimes" starts with a gothic organ and is a great song although if i have one gripe the version on the free Daytrotter session is in my view much sweeter and stronger.

"Silver Clouds" is possibility the sparest acoustic song on the album and one of the loveliest. This is until the last minute of the song when more dramatic "orchestration" occurs - namely drums kick in!

"Beneath your tree" - is the most upbeat song here and like "In our talons" is accordian driven and sees Moore and Tacular sharing vocal duties.

I am still not certain about "This day" and reserve judgement on it. "Crooked lust" alternatively is underpinned by gorgeous guitar lines and is possibly the strongest song in the whole set.

Upper Air and Hymns for a Dark Horse could be treated as a double since they compliment each other beautifully. Some would argue that this is lazy and represents little natural progression. Frankly I dont care, both albums are full of excellent songs and killer boy girl harmonies which are traditional but evocative. This music will never sell copious U2 amounts of records. Neither will it frankly generate huge excitement when you listen to it. What is will do is provide you with 10 songs that are heartbreakingly tender and tell a good story. I for one dont really want much more than this...
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on 12 November 2013
I bought this on the back of a good review in a music magazine, and i had heard nothing from them before. The album started with a great opener, which had quirky and unique written all over it. The problem i then had, was that all the other tracks seemed to be in the same vein - without the quirkyness, or uniqueness. I found it quite drab and hard listening to be honest. Perhaps it needs a lot more plays.
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