Birds of Passage – This Kindly Slumber (2014)

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Finally a review for an album released in 2014, the upcoming sophomore LP from New Zealand native Alicia Merz of Birds of Passage with This Kindly Slumber.

Folk and Pop can always be counted on to turn up in weird places and found associated with a plethora of genres. Birds of Passages fills the same shoes as people like Grouper’s Liz Harris or Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval in this release that manages to span Dream Pop, Ambient, Slowcore and Lo-Fi Folk. It’s best introduced to us in the ethereal opener “Ashes to Ashes”, with crystalline and reverb heavy vocals floating gently through the thick drones of processed guitar. The comparison to Grouper had to be made at some point, so why not now at the beginning? There’s something deeply familiar in the smeared instrumentation and lazy melodies that can be likened to Liz’s meandering dreamscapes. Stunner and album favourite “Belle De Jour” is up quickly though, and it takes a much more menacing and creepy tone in its whispered and careful lyrics, steady drone undercurrent and simplistic synth lines. What’s to say? Alicia’s voice is an entrancing affair for the first half, creating an intimate yet also distant atmosphere through the subtle lo-fi processing, slowly making way for measured acoustic guitars.

As “Belle De Jour” warbles out we welcome the decidedly more motion filled “And All Of Your Dreams”, the notes of the steel stringed guitar ringing out in pulses of quivering distortion in this relatively short piece. The guitar drone is denser than ever but Alicia compensates by taking her hushed voice to new heights and smothering the music a little, preventing it from overwhelming her as she talks about her dreams and aspirations, keeping them from being swept away by time and commitments. Thus “Stranger” seems like a pretty darn upbeat incursion following the depressing minimalism of the tracks so far; admittedly not a great deal is different in terms of the base construction, the same strung out drones and reverbed vocals but it’s brighter, more piercing and more determined. “Sacred and secret” she sings in the most optimistic and bright tones we’ve heard thus far; still quiet but soaring in its own way, but quite ponderous and drawn out also.

But it’s ok because “Take My Breath” crushes the pacing once more and reinvites the fugue back into the album. The guitar comes to the fore a little further in a more unfiltered form in gentle arpeggios as Alicia croons over the top; it’s simplistic, which is saying something for this album since much of it hasn’t been exactly complex in construction, but it ekes out a lulling and uncomfortably calming atmosphere, one that bewitches in its sparse instrumentation whilst actually holding a much darker tone. “Yesterday’s Stains” is actually a little bolder in its construction, introducing piano for the first time albeit in a very smeared and rounded state where it’s difficult to tell one chord from another once the surrounding music begins to pick up. It’s a rather progressive piece really, with a rather optimistic outlook.

Finally closer “Lonesome Tame” comes in to remove us from our misery, its soft washes of synth and guitar drone something of a welcome respite, and it’s later sequences of more driven, clear piano strokes are rather cathartic as we brush the sleep from our eyes. Just when we thought there would be a track without lyrical content Alicia comes in with some characteristic vocals once more just to finalise and round the album off in this exceptionally glacial finisher.

I rather liked this album the first time I heard it, but successive listens have kind of dulled my senses and made me a little tired of the sound. “Belle De Jour” does still remain to be a fascinating and beautiful Slowcore single but the album as an entity is rather tiresome, as you can probably tell from my rather unenthusiastic writeup. Many of the tracks evolve in the same, predictable way and the ethereal vocals work up to a point but they hover too frustratingly on the edge of comprehension for me; they’re not clear enough to be unravelled so they become too unclear to be useful in the grand scheme as all the tracks just smear into one experience. Ok, beautiful at times, but ultimately somewhat, well, dull.

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