Hymns for a Dark Horse
very time Phil Moore sings, he bleeds a little bit. So his songs don't necessarily end: they wither beautifully until all the blood is spent, every chorus dotted in red. Hymns for a Dark Horse ends not because of lack of breath, but because Moore seems to have spent everything in finishing it: each song lush with the well-rubbed corners of life and a thousand pound pathos.
But he's just one-third of Bowerbirds; a band who, by all accounts, like to wander around the forest and get their lives trapped up in it and write songs about it. They like pine trees and loons. They talk about love and memory. The first song, "Hooves," is about being born and uses cozy naturalistic metaphors. Near the end, he sings the word heart, and his voice climbs under a floor of violins and then just seems to leave the space of the recording entirely. So it's more than a little troubling when Moore writes stuff like "Death to your oil machine / Death to the civil life" because it's devoid of the smug righteousness of the protester. At moments like these, and everywhere else on Hymns, Moore sings like a man at the gallows.
Like Bambi, the fluffy tails to heartbreak ratio in any given Bowerbirds song is 1:1. For every gorgeous vista, every Leopard Frog, or sparrow, there's probably a steam shovel waiting in the wings. This reaches its peak on "In Our Talons" where Moore and Tacular dog-ear shelves full of National Geographic when they weave harmonies. The earnest, aw schucks-ness of the song is bolstered by heirloom accordions, brushed drums, and Moore's guitar. Each instrument enters in slow tides, waxing full in the chorus then slips away as Moore buckles slowly into himself and barbs his fable with an undeniable charge, "It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth."
The environmentalism of Bowerbirds is as neat as blinking or chin scratching—they don't come storming down with clipboards and pictures of clubbed seals. What they do is both knee-jerk and subtle. You could choose to ignore the fact that the old-fashioned American pastorals Bowerbirds quilts together—the Appalachian storm in "Human Hands" or the toothless ecstasy of "My Oldest Memory" are fine-stitched with polemic. It's easy. When Phil Moore and Beth Tacular and Mark Pailson write songs, they write love songs. And when they sing, they sing with love too.
Reviewed by: Daniel Denorch
Reviewed on: 2007-07-13