For better or worse, most artists/bands have their edges knocked off when they make the leap from successful home recording to studio production. The Bowerbirds duo however have grasped the opportunity with both sets of hands, complimenting rather than confusing their rootsy folk with the backing of a full band.
Their third album The Clearing really benefits from this change in scope too. Where their last LP Upper Air was largely a verbatim re-tread of their campfire-friendly debut Hymns For A Dark Horse, here we find a confident evolution awash with piano parts, violin and/or vibraphone. As such, this won't be the only review to liken the noteworthy results to the less showman-like songs of Sufjan Stevens or those deliciously balanced compositions of Andrew Bird (with whom key Bowerbird Phil Moore also happens to share a vocal resemblance).
That the trace elements of cutesy smugness that come from working with your significant other have also been erased from the mix is a bonus too - though this could be due to the unwelcome dose of reality that fate recently dealt the pair when second Bowerbird Beth Tacular`s life was threatened by a unknown illness and her personal relationship with Moore suffered an on-off-on blip.
Previously acoustic poignancy was the Bowerbirds calling card, but things have become a lot more interesting with their newly expanded palette and consequently "Hush" is by far the most adventurous track Moore and Tacular have recorded. Backed by an atmospheric chorus and metronomic ticking, it has the pair singing in unison as Dirty Projector-like guitar interjections play all over the bedding.
Equally novel to the North Carolinian woods that these Bowerbirds call home is the conjoined, 10+ minute sound of closer "Death Wish" / "Now We Hurry On". Starting life with a heavy footfall courtesy of solemn kick-drumming and low-end piano, balance is offered by pretty keys and tremulous brass that then give way to a tearful bridge full of crying strings and an evocatively slow outro.
Rather than attempting to alter a winning formula, Moore and Tacular have built on one as "This Year" shows. Initially true to their earlier mid-Western folk, studio-softened drums then roll in and switch into an electric crescendo. The cinematic "Walk The Furrows" is more traditional still, reverting almost entirely to the finger plucking of older tracks like "Crooked Lust" - the arresting simplicity of "Overcome With Light" even does its best to out vocal-harmony genre figureheads Fleet Foxes.
Nevertheless, the confident arrangement of the new instruments within the band's core sound is where the real success of The Clearing lies. For example, comforting opener "Tuck The Darkness In" is downright resplendent with its ever-building, stately swoops of guitar and fully produced drums. It's an infectious sort of confidence too as Tacular's never-more-demure vocal on the lovely "In The Yard" perhaps confirms.
The next Bowerbirds album always seemed predictable. Though very agreeable, Upper Air didn't stretch the wings of anyone concerned, but with The Clearing Moore and Tacular have more than pleasantly surprised and their new plumage is really rather becoming.
Advised downloads: "Tuck The Darkness In" and "Hush".