Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Magnolia - The Wooden Birds


The Wooden Birds
Barsuk Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

As someone who dreamt of American Analog Set reforming on a regular basis, I was thrilled at first word of Andrew Kenny’s return to the limelight. For the last two months, I’d routinely checked their Myspace page, looking for interviews, promotional details, anything. Yet their Myspace remains a virtual blank slate, Wooden Bird interviews are non-existent and even reviews have been leisurely surfacing following Magnolia’s release. To diminish this record further, Kenny seemed far more preoccupied with an AmAnSet B-sides digital release, Hard to Find: Singles and Unreleased 2000 - 2005, gushing about the evolutions of tracks and writing extensively on studio memoirs. It wasn’t until I purchased and heard Magnolia that I understood its anonymity, as this recording seeks only to exist, to breathe its acoustic melodies between four humble walls and maybe – if it isn’t too much to ask – be appreciated.

The set doesn’t start out attention-starved, as The Wooden Birds (Chris Michaels, Leslie Sisson and David Wingo round out Kenny’s line-up) execute well-honed, economic folk songs; ‘False Alarm’ sounds freshly written from Kenny’s time backing Kevin Drew on tour, while ‘Sugar’ evokes Neil Young at his most bare-boned and sincere. The simple acoustic foundation of these songs is bolstered by tasteful lead guitar-work as well as an assortment of natural auxiliary percussion. This folk-based arrangement suits Kenny’s songwriting well, harkening back to AmAnSet highlights ‘The Postman’ or ‘Aaron & Maria’, yet Magnolia, mellow and inviting it may be, never crosses into former-band territory. Equally ‘analog’ but increasingly organic, The Wooden Birds sound more at home on the Americana pages of Paste magazine than on any Pitchfork recommendation.

Humble and dog-eared a suit as Kenny has ever worn, still, not everything on Magnolia comes off as beautifully easy as ‘Seven Seventeen’. The record’s mid-section - while maintaining the same shuffling mid-tempo presented earlier - is melodically malnourished, rendering a string of songs entirely forgettable. ‘Choke’ gets by on Kenny’s gift for slow-core, displaying the same knack for subtlety that made AmAnSet songs like ‘Jr’ and ‘Slow Company’ hard-earned fan favourites. But the same can’t be said for ‘Believe in Love’; an eager bassline searching in vain for compositional direction. Worst offenders for tediousness are ‘Quit You Once’ and ‘Never Know’, which, despite being borderline OK songs, blur into each other so finely they’re virtually identical.

Given my admiration and enthusiasm for American Analog Set, it’s hard to walk into The Wooden Birds’ debut without arming myself with hype. It’s even harder to admit that Magnolia is a bit of a let-down; twelve tracks spanning thirty-seven minutes that manages to feel both underdeveloped yet shockingly too long. In spite of this, the collection still possesses a scattered six or so tracks that would comprise an awesome EP. Properly sequenced, it would stand to challenge some of 2009’s better releases while preparing us for their eventual full-length debut. Unfortunately, such a scenario must now reside next to my AmAnSet-reunion hopes in some alternative Andrew Kenny reality I daydream about. Sad that Magnolia, in all its patience-testing malaise, ends up encompassing that startling awareness that wakes you from better sounding dreams.

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