The Boston Globe, October 18 2011 • James Reed
PAWTUCKET, R.I. David Lamb’s tattooed hands tell a story. Fists clenched and held together, they spell out in block letters a reminder that he once needed. Lamb got that ink at a trying time in his life, when he was restless and could use a moral compass. You think about that tattoo and its message a lot when you listen to Brown Bird, the band Lamb started in 2003 as a solo project. Home could be anywhere. From its bluesy swagger to exuberant Eastern European string arrangements to visceral folk narratives, Brown Bird’s music is nomadic and yet rooted in things we all want: love, comfort, direction.
It’s surprising, then, that it has taken Brown Bird nearly a decade to attract the attention it deserves. Having weathered various lineup changes and with a new album out today, Brown Bird is finally poised for greater things. “There has been a lot more momentum going for us lately, down to the very small details that we’re getting paid a little more for shows and around New England we’re getting a little more recognition,’’ Lamb says earlier this month outside the Met, where Brown Bird will play later that evening.
“Slowly it’s building and we feel like it has a lot more potential to be sustainable,’’ adds Lamb, with MorganEve Swain, his bandmate, sitting next to him. Brown Bird, which is based in Providence after a few years in Maine, has indeed had a slow burn. “Salt for Salt,’’ released on the indie Rhode Island label Supply & Demand Music, is not the band’s first album, but it feels like a debut. Pared down from a five-piece to a duo, Brown Bird is now a band of economy with a potent focus that wasn’t heard on previous releases.
Lamb and Swain, who are 33 and 26, respectively, are a couple, not that you’d need to be told if you’ve ever seen them together. On stage and off, they impart a quiet but smoldering chemistry, and not just in their complementary nature of playing. Sometimes their mutual admiration seeps into performance.
During Brown Bird’s breakthrough debut at the Newport Folk Festival this past summer, Swain remarked that it was a shame the audience wasn’t facing the water: “You’re missing a really nice view out there.’’ Unrehearsed, Lamb couldn’t help himself. “I think you’re a pretty nice view,’’ he said, and the crowd played its part in return: “Awww.’’
They conjured a big sound that sunny afternoon, which was all the more impressive when you considered it was just two people. On “Salt for Salt,’’ Swain plays violin (worked over more like a fiddle, though), upright bass, and cello; Lamb gets his kicks on acoustic guitar, banjo, and percussion.
“Salt for Salt’’ makes it clear that they rely on the other’s virtuosity. Swain, in particular, is a force on the album, a trained violinist who has taken detours into Celtic music, bluegrass, rockabilly, and country. Lamb meets her at every turn with his ferocious guitar work and a junkyard-dog howl that’s part Johnny Cash and a whole lot of Tom Waits.
“We’re not really sure what to say,’’ Swain says. “The last time we talked about this, we decided to say we’re not genre-specific, which kind of works but doesn’t tell you anything about us.’’ “Usually we just describe the instrumentation and the different things we’re influenced by,’’ Lamb elaborates. “A lot of our influences come out in the music we make. Some songs will be a little heavier on the blues, some will be a little heavier on country or Eastern European music.’’ Whatever they’re doing, it has caught on well enough that Lamb and Swain both recently quit their day jobs — she was working at a coffee-roasting company, he labored at a shipyard in nearby Warren.
Given his songwriting’s penchant for cryptic imagery —“I drank the blood of angels from a bottle/ Just to see if I could call the lightning down’’ is a typical sentiment — you suspect Lamb might have a background in literature. “You’re flattering me,’’ Lamb says, acknowledging he doesn’t. Maybe he’s blushing, but you’d never know through his thick beard. “It’s a common misconception. He’s not intellectual at all,’’ Swain says, and they both laugh. “I love lyricism and I do enjoy books, but I don’t read nearly as often as I’d like,’’ Lamb says.
“But your most influential book . . .’’ Swain says, knowing he’ll finish the sentence. “ . . . would have to be the Bible,’’ Lamb replies, “because I was raised by a minister and read it every day growing up, from the time I could read to throughout high school. I left my parents’ church and all that behind when I left high school. But the language in it and the way it’s written definitely have a big influence on the way I write.’’ Swain nods knowingly, and again, watching them interact, you sense that Brown Bird has come into its own — home, if you want to put a fine point on it. Lamb and Swain finally realized that it simply took less for them to produce more.
“We can definitely focus on the band more this way than we ever could before because we’re always together,’’ Swain says. “We’re living and breathing it now.’’