Portland Phoenix, April 29 2015 • Jakob Battick
“And if this flesh should fade, devour me from within, pray then my soul prevail, free to roam again.” It’s not easy to process these lyrics within the context of a new Brown Bird record, especially when you’ve just pushed play. After founding member David Lamb’s passing in April of last year, Axis Mundi, the duo’s latest and last album, feels even more devastating than you’d expect. The group, formed in 2003 as a solo project of Lamb’s, came with time to become one of Maine’s most cherished musical treasures. From their early days on Portland’s own Peapod Recordings through their time as an internationally acclaimed touring folk act, Lamb could always be trusted to write songs as intense as they were beautiful, and as razor-sharp in vision as they were humble and soulful. It’s a stupefying tragedy that he should have been taken away from the world so soon, but Axis Mundi stands as the most perfect possible parting note Lamb could have left.
As evidenced in the previously quoted first few lines from opening track “Focus,” Mundi heads straight for the jugular as soon as it’s begun. Lamb’s words, throughout the record, seem to stare down his own mortality, whether directly or indirectly, with a fearless, unflinching eye. Shape shifting imagery abounds, just as it has always done throughout the extensive Brown Bird catalogue, but here it’s draped in shadow. “There are beasts in the forest of fevers tonight, and spikes in the sweat on your brow taking flight,” he sings on the droning, cello-driven “Forest of Fevers.” “Each moment’s an hour, each hour a day, you feel your flesh fleetingly fall to decay, any perks of your affluent past have crumbled away,” writes Lamb. It’s unbelievably heavy stuff, and Lamb’s writing is at its most pointed, furious peak.
The instrumentation on Mundi, too, reflects a smoldering intensity. Many of these 16 songs are played at a low, lurching middle pace, driven by low-end sounds and heavy percussion work. “Raging Squall” is particularly gorgeous, and makes smart use of a full drumset, electric bass and dark distorted guitar to deliver an end product that feels far more “rock” than any Brown Bird recording before. In fact, there’s a strain of driving, almost doomy atmosphere that runs through much of the record’s arrangements, reflecting Lamb’s own tension about his increasingly befuddling condition. There’s the half-tempo churn of “Sackcloth and Ash,” which feels completely sinister in tone, the monstrous near-metal riff that makes up the core of “Smoke Rising,” and the grim minor key progressions of “Blood From the Tree.” On “Blood,” the now familiar Eastern European folk flourishes in Brown Bird’s sound are distilled to their most funereal and timeworn roots, with keening strings and distant, ghostly vocal harmonies layered into the background. It sounds more like an ancient Romani ballad than a Lamb original, and the effect is, without exaggeration, spine-tingling.
Lamb and MorganEve Swain sing together, as always, with both grace and grit. Swain, here, is regularly employed to echo Lamb’s darker-than-dark lyrics in a beautiful, high register, only making them that much more haunting. Lamb’s own voice is in fine form, as smoky and real as ever, delivering his words with a clear, matter of fact diction that allows every word on Mundi to crawl into the listener’s ear. We are all truly blessed not just that Lamb was such a gifted, powerful lyricist, but that he also had a natural talent for delivery. He was never dramatic, never made a show of the stories his songs told, but rather dropped them off gently in a low, expressive tone full of genuine feeling. Part country twang, part lonesome Appalachian folk, and part fire and brimstone incantation, his was a voice with few clear parallels in contemporary music, and Axis Mundi pairs it with narratives that could unsettle even the hardiest of listeners.
Weeks ago, Swain posted a photo of Lamb’s notes to himself during the recording process for this record. It’s a list of the songs, and below each a set of changes to be made is written. Nearly every one of the tracks has a note from Dave, in bold, clear handwriting, to “make it rock.” With Axis Mundi, he absolutely trounced this goal. These songs are gigantic, and often built on massive instrumentation that rocks, and then some. From the beginning through the end, they each come out with fangs bared and amps buzzing, ready to push farther, and louder, than any Brown Bird record before. Even at their most hushed, when Swain sings alone alongside Lamb’s guitar, they still possess a ferocity that’s absolutely levelling. And therein lies the magic of Mundi, it’s a record that, whether quiet or loud, never stops channeling a real, honest intensity. As a writer and as a fan, I could think of no more perfect way to honor a life as poetic, genuine and passionately lived as Lamb’s.
Axis Mundi by Brown Bird | Available April 28 via Supply & Demand Records | www.brownbird.net