Written by: Alex Green
“Music is a strange thing,” Heinrich Heine once wrote. “I would almost say,” he continued, “it is a miracle. For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon, between spirit and matter, a sort of nebulous mediator, like and unlike each of the things it mediates—spirit that requires manifestation in time, and matter that can do without space.”
Heine might as well have been describing Houses and Homes, the debut album from Oakland’s The Bye Bye Blackbirds and the follow-up to their marvelous Honeymoon EP. Embodying the German poet‘s sentiment of being “halfway between thought and phenomenon,” it’s a paradoxical work that’s both centerless and centered, solid, but liquescent. It’s a pop album and it’s not; it’s immediate but it’s distant. It’s easy to talk about but hard to describe.
It’s there and it isn’t and then it’s there again.
Houses and Homes is a wonderfully mysterious and satisfying collection that’s got all the charm of classic Kiwi pop (The Clean, The Verlaines) and all the gentle acoustic tug of everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Fakebook-era Yo La Tengo. Its sonic precision is quietly mathematical, its gentle poetry literary, its sound at once familiar and enigmatic. Like some kind of heavenly pastoral extraction distilled into song, it sounds like a season in reverse; like summer on its side aching its way back into spring.
It also proves that pop music doesn’t always need velocity to bring you to your knees.
“The Ghosts Are Alright” suggests The Loud Family, circa Days For Days; with its hushed delivery and plangent background vocals, “Shed The Skin” has all the rich finesse of Simon & Garfunkel, and the impossibly lovely “Edge Of Town” brings to mind the melodic elegance of The Moore Brothers. Elsewhere, “Murray Morgan’s Last Dream” is a swirling confluence of acoustic psychedelia and faraway folk, while “In Stereo” starts with a bounce and jangles away to confessional lines like, “I never thought love would last,” before veering into the postmodern sentiment of: “Are these words in a song all mine?”
Led by two vocalists (Bradley Skaught and William Duke), The Bye Bye Blackbirds craft the kind of harmonies that flow so effortlessly through their compositions, they illuminate a series of melodic dimensions that allow the songs to operate on several different levels of consciousness at once. In other words, though you might be pulled in by the immediacy of spry numbers like “The Ghosts Are Alright” or the breezy “Original Lights,” the latter’s suggestion of surf guitar or the former’s subversive jangle are elements that’ll occur to you somewhere between ordinary consciousness and lucid dreaming.
A sly nine song offering with subtle, but deeply memorable hooks, Houses and Homes references everyone from The Go-Betweens to Sneaky Feelings. And in keeping with the aural aesthetic of the aforementioned musical antecedents, it’s a lustrous and intelligent listen. It’s also one of the most skillful pop albums in recent memory.
Allow Stereo Embers to introduce you to the Masters Of Mirthful Melody: The Bye Bye Blackbirds.
FULL NAME: Bradley Joel Skaught
NICKNAME: Never had a nickname…
BAND MEMBERS: William Duke plays bass, sings the lead bits I don’t sing and writes some extraordinary songs; Lenny Gill plays drums and is the best guitarist in the band; Ian Robertson plays the lead guitar and sings the high, pretty parts.
HOMETOWN: Tacoma, WA
WEBSITE: www. byebyeblackbirds. com
RECORD LABEL: American Dust
DESCRIBE YOUR SOUND IN ONE SENTENCE: Equal parts shiny and rusty–a harmony-drenched, rootsy jangle.
PROUDEST PROFESSIONAL MOMENT: Getting paid is still rare enough to be thoroughly satisfying.
STRANGEST PROFESSIONAL MOMENT: Being used as background music for MTV’s The Real World–discovered while channel surfing.
THE SONG YOU WISH THAT YOU’D WRITTEN: “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”–Yip Harburg at his absolute finest.
FIVE BEST BANDS TO EVER ROAM THE EARTH: Only five? The Band, The Smiths, Los Lobos, The Sneaky Feelings, The Watersons. Want five more?
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE AS A KID?: Shorter
WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT?: The San Francisco Giants
LAST TWO BOOKS YOU’VE READ: I read a lot–here’s three: Natsume Soseki Light And Darkness, Eric Hobsbawn The Age of Capital and Owen Hill’s Against The Weather.
FIVE THINGS WE’D FIND IN THE TRUNK OF YOUR CAR: I don’t drive.
HARDEST PART ABOUT BEING A MUSICIAN: Everything else.
BEST ALBUM TO PLAY AFTER A BREAK-UP AND YOU’RE HOLDING A BOTTLE OF VODKA AND SOMETHING SHARP: Are we trying to end it or are we looking for hope? Sinatra’s No One Cares for the former, The Beach Boys’
Carl & The Passions for the latter.
INDULGENCE YOU REFUSE TO GIVE UP: The San Francisco Giants
FAVORITE QUOTE: Anything by Anonymous
PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: There’s absolutely no beating Matthew 7:12