Bowerbirds
The Bowerbirds (from left, Mark Paulson, Beth Tacular, and Phil Moore), shown here at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, fill their songs with imagery from the natural world. The band will be at the High Noon Saloon on Sunday. Dead Oceans photo

The bowerbird is a medium-sized blue-black bird with an artistic bent. The male bowerbird will spend hours building an elaborate "bower" structure out of sticks, decorating it with shells, leaves, flowers, berries and other found objects. The bower is intended to attract female bowerbirds, and is eventually used as a place for copulation.

That's right; the bowerbird is just another artist using his work to meet chicks.

Phil Moore and Beth Tacular had never heard about bowerbirds until they came across them in a children's encyclopedia. They were so enamored of the birds that they bought a nature documentary about them on DVD, and then went on to call their folk band Bowerbirds. The group plays the High Noon Saloon on Sunday, Jan. 17.

"To me, a bowerbird is the ultimate creative artist animal of the animal kingdom, really," Moore said in a phone interview from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. "They're just so amazing, just the way they collect insect shells and flower petals. It makes you imagine what thoughts are going on in their head; like, they flip a leaf over and go ‘Oh, that looks right.'"

Bowerbirds is an especially appropriate name for the band, as nature proves a constant and powerful presence in their songs. The band's first album, 2007's "Hymns for a Dark Horse," was a collection of indie folk songs about plants and animals, and how the natural world is often threatened by the industrialized one.

Last summer, the band released the follow-up, "Upper Air," which also brims with nature imagery. But this time, the songs are much more cryptic and haunting, the references to the natural world serving more as metaphors for emotion.

On "Teeth," Moore sings, "And my mind is the open ocean that swells and roils with wild invention. In migration, without boundaries, my lungs are giant whales." On "Beneath Your Tree," he sings, "You don't own me, but I'll take your lead down a gnarly thicket in the trees."

"There are a couple of songs on the latest album which to the listener, I can imagine, aren't perfectly clear," Moore said. "Of course, they mean something very clear to me. I was trying to let myself write some of those songs. I had been so literal or explanatory on the first album.

"I felt like I wanted to write words around a feeling or around a vision that was in my head, and not necessarily say, ‘Here's what it is,' and here's the consequences of that."

One thing that Moore especially wanted to move away from was songs that had an explicit environmental message, that came across as somewhat finger-pointing and accusatory.

"I just didn't like that, and I didn't really feel that anymore," Moore said. "I wanted to do something from more of a personal place now."

"Upper Air" also sounds like more care was taken with the arrangements than on "Dark Horse," for which many of the songs were recorded in a single take, with all the musicians crowding around a microphone. That gave the songs a warm immediacy that critics responded to, and initially the band started to record songs for the new album that way.

"We recorded five of the songs like that, but then we scrapped all of those recordings," he said. "It seemed to be just a repeat of the first album in a lot of ways, and a continuation of how we were doing things. I felt like there was a lot more that needed to be put in the songs."

Moore grew up in the small town of Grinnell, Iowa, where his parents both taught mathematics at Grinnell College. He said it wasn't a particularly bucolic upbringing, although he hung out a lot with the kids of rural families in the area.

"A lot of my friends were farm kids, and they always seemed to be the most creative with their time," Moore said.

One of Moore's childhood friends was Mark Paulson, and the two were in bands together all through high school and college. They moved to Raleigh with a new band, Ticonderoga, and eventually split off on their own with Tacular to form Bowerbirds. Currently, Moore and Tacular are considered the nucleus of the band with Paulson and other musicians rotating in and out.

Moore and Tacular's fondness for nature in their music extends to the rest of their lives as well; the pair have built a cabin in the North Carolina woods. Moore said that after a couple of years' work, the exterior is finished, but there's no electricity or plumbing yet.

"It was this idyllic life, this romantic life that we wanted," he said. "We wanted the quietness of the woods. And also, we wanted to experience a mortgage-free existence. That was pretty important, at least for a while. We wanted to get that accomplished while we're still touring."

BOWERBIRDS

with Sharon Van Etten and Peter Wolf Crier

When: Sunday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m.

Where: High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave.

Cost: $10 at the door or through high-noon.com

 

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