Nick Bollinger reviews the 'secular gospel music' of Birds Of Chicago.
For almost a decade, musician and record producer Joe Henry lived and worked out of a South Pasadena residence known as The Garfield House: built at the turn of the last century for Lucretia Garfield, widow of the late American President James Garfield. Last year he packed up his studio and moved on. But before he did, he made this.
Real Midnight, the second album by Birds Of Chicago, has the distinction of being the last record produced by Joe Henry in the Garfield House, concluding a list that includes albums by Over The Rhine, Mary Gauthier and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, not to mention several by Henry himself.
It’s hard to tell how much it’s the house and how much it’s Henry that gives all these records a certain unifying mood. One thing’s for sure, though: Birds Of Chicago fit right in.
Formed just four years ago, they are helmed by a romantic couple, JT Nero and Alice Russell. Nero (whose name is actually Jeremy Lindsay) used to front a soul-influenced indie band, JT and the Clouds, based in Chicago. Russell sang with the Canadian quartet Po’ Girl. They hooked up when the two acts were touring together, and Birds Of Chicago is the result.
Nero is a rootsy singer and songwriter. Left to his own devices you could imagine him forging an identity in the mould of a Jeff Tweedy - as you can hear on the songs where he takes the lead.
But it’s Russell’s voice that lifts Birds Of Chicago out of the folksy-country realm and takes them somewhere much closer to soul or R&B. The combination of Nero’s country inflections and Russell’s gospel choruses has an early-70s vibe to it: that period when gospel and country were meeting in the music of Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell and a bunch of others.
But despite the palpable joy Nero and Russell have found in working together – effectively disbanding their previous groups to create this new one – there’s a note of unease that runs through their songwriting. Or perhaps it’s just that finding this apparent love and stability, they have allowed themselves to contemplate the big existential questions. As they ask in the sombre title song: ‘What are you going to do with your days left in the sun?’
Nero and Russell have coined the phrase ‘secular gospel’ for the music they make as Birds Of Chicago, and it’s apt – not just sonically, with hymnal chords and choral harmonies, but also thematically. There’s nothing overtly religious here, but there’s a preoccupation with the transience of life, and the inevitable questions about what comes next.
Real Midnight may be sombre in its themes, but its varied in its settings. At times it comes down to almost field-recording simplicity, with Russell singing a cappella, but they can also build a chorus to near-anthemic heights, which is what they do in the song that might best encapsulate the mood of the whole album. Called ‘Remember Wild Horses’, it’s a song that looks back at what’s been lost, accepts the transient nature of things, then moves ahead with an open heart and voices raised to the heavens.
Songs featured: Dim Star of the Palisades; Colour of Love; Time and Times; The Good Fight; Estrella Goodbye; Real Midnight; Sparrow; Barley; Remember Wild Horses.
Real Midnight is available on Five Head Records.