Not since Gilli Smyth fronted Gong or Dagmar Krause fronted Henry Cow have you heard a really great, genuinely femme avant-pop excursion. You can find soloists like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. You can find Canadians like Jane Siberry, if you must. But a unit of measure - a trio like Cow or a massively manned assault like Gong's? One where often wordless, primal screams and holy tongue-speaking ripples of poking, babbling voices intermingle with toots and blorts and skronks without relying on guitars? That also manages musicality and melody? One where rhythms crazed and curly seem to play within messy, but somehow, innocently sweet arrangements? I think not.
That's why I've been so open to Birdbrain, a tri-state-based, guitar-and-bass-less avant-pop quintet whose billowing bangs and seedy reedy and brass displays play in the same yard, not only of Krause-n-Cow, but of Joan La Barbara and Kevin Ayers, free-floating free-music eccentrics both. Yet, there's accessibility to their sound that places the "pop" of avant-pop high upon things Birdbrain value most. With their minimalist soundscapes and playful vocals, Birdbrain have created for live audiences a twilight zone that's never dull or droll.
That could come from the fact that their instrumentalists have, at their command, the history of pedigree. Trombonist Peter Zummo has been aligned to late greats Arthur Russell and Steve Lacy. Percussionist Michael Evans has played with God Is My Co-Pilot and many a James Chance configuration. Saxophonists G. Don Trubey and Tim Noe were Dancing Cigarettes. Their flat, repetitious bloops and minor-key blorts, tied to the sounds of wind, ravens and rain, on "A Dream of Things" sets a stage for Perez to dance upon. Without her, they'd be boring. Without them, she'd be unhinged. Together they create an elegant cloud of careening, woozy woe as documented by their long EP, I Fly, and its best stabbing, darting multitracked vocals as through the free-jazz breaks of "Confection of Sound." Adorable and dangerous, Birdbrain are a must-watch for 2005.
Volume 17, Number 49
With only vocals & horns, Birdbrain defies what would normally be limitations and uses minimal arrangements to create imaginative mind-scenes (though the last track swaps out horns for spacey keyboards). Birdbrain's 2-way approach allows the artists to fully realize the scope and range of their instruments, painting the songs with a uniquely detailed brush, and allowing the listener to be completely submerged in their surreal world. Singer Yvette Perez's voice soars, glides and darts about the horns, which swoon, punch and drunkenly careen, providing the low-end contrast to Perez's high flying voice.
Everybody likes a bit of tension now and then, and I Fly, the debut release from New York quartet Birdbrain, provides plenty. Consisting of just two saxophones, trombone and vocals, the group's music features spirited horn battles and a singer (Yvette Perez) who treats the notes of the standard diatonic scale as if they were merely rough guides to be tweaked as needed.
Obvious reference points for I Fly are The World Saxophone Quartet or Rova Saxophone Quartet, though Birdbrain are less selfconciously avant garde - more poppy, in fact. The ten songs here are short and savoury rather than sweet. They're epigrammatic mini-stories, like the haiku-ish "Sea Cow": "Sea cow/Swims in our tow/Sea cow/Kinda like you now/Oh, manatee in tow/Ahoy ahoy/Sea cow." Perez's breathless punk jazz vocalising, half spoken/half sung, owes much to No Wave. Time and again she almost hits the expected note but veers away at the last moment, twisting short of her presumed target.
With no rhythm section as such, Birdbrain's three horn players (Don Trubey on alto, Tim Noe on tenor, and downtown avant garde legend Peter Zummo on trombone) fill multiple roles. Most tracks feature pulsing pedal bass figures on alto sax, laying a foundation for rhythmically complex call and response duels between tenor and trombone. The horn interplay resolves from time to time into harmonic cadences that are surprisingly lush for such a small group. In its less restrained moments, the horn section almost evokes the crazed French jazz rock outfit Etron Fou Leloublan. At its punkiest, it comes close to the naive, atonal wailing of Lora Logic.
Issue 251, January 2005
To call Birdbrain "quirky" would be to establish new boundaries of meaning for the word. Consisting of one female singer, an alto saxophonist, a tenor saxophonist, and a trombonist, the band is sort of a weird cross between a classical wind ensemble, a cabaret outfit, and the pickup bands that David Thomas used to convene for his solo albums (conspiracy mongers will note that several tracks were recorded at the Brooklyn studio of Pere Ubu alumnus Tony Maimone).
To call I Fly an album would also be to play somewhat fast and loose with the terminology; although it's ten tracks long, the average track length is about two minutes, so it's really about the length of an EP. (To the label's credit, track times are prominently noted on the back cover.) Don't look for memorable melodies here; the hook is the incredibly inventive and constantly interesting horn arrangements, which sometimes sound like 12th-century hocketing and sometimes like bird calls; Yvette Perez's vocals are also attractive, but not usually as interesting as the horns. The lyrics are mostly pretty hard to catch, since they tend to be mixed a bit low next to the horns, but the snippets that come through are, you know, quirky. Recommended.
Beak-tweaking pop from this Brooklyn Quartet. Yvette Perez's queerly cheering vocals and kewpie paroxysms ride on top of a great trio of horns. Betty Boop over bop? Actually the horns (two saxes and a trombone) sound like marching band refugees trying to capture Albert Ayler in minimalism? The songs are quick to flight, the album breezes by in a feather over 20 minutes. Perez's vocals are stacked in teasing layers, they definitely add to the braininess. The birdiness comes from some of the horn's tooty tweeting and staccato woodpecker sections. There are a few avian persuasion lyrics and a fowl sample or two, but this stays fair and delivers a homerun for fans of herky-quirky. O Superband!
My favorite records - the ones that have real "staying power" - are most often the ones that sneak up on you when you least expect it, and come at you with sounds you least expect at that given moment. I'm hitting you all with the tagline right out of the gate for this one - this is a serious contender for Record of the Year. I Fly is one of those delightful NYC artifacts that displays what has made the city's art/ music/ intermedia scene so wonderful for the last few decades - a sonic melting pot that uses influences not as reference points, but rather as launchpads for new explorations.
Birdbrain creates songs that are startling in their efficiency; the arrangements exude a weightless tension that highlights the mass collective talent of these downtown veterans. For those of you that need reference points, imagine the World Saxophone Quartet dancing sambas around the sardonic, dramatic vocalese of Jill Kroesen or early Laurie Anderson and you're almost there. Few groups these days are able to make such complex beauty seem so effortless and surprising. Perez calls it "avant-pop." I call it "perfection." Highest recommendation!
Ready for something unique? This is a brass trio (tenor and alto sax and trombone) playing avant pop with a vocalist. Despite the setup, this is not jazz and really feels like pop rock, even if there aren't drums or a guitar. Sometimes they swing a little, sometimes they play riffs, sometimes sound effects come out of nowhere, and she often sings pretty in a Dagmar Krauss sort of way. The members are former or current members of The Dancing Cigarettes, The North Brooklyn Sound Collective, God Is My Co-Pilot, etc.
This EP contains 10 very short songs. The brass section sounds almost funny repetitive and seriously arranged at the same time, with small variation on the first tracks (songs like "Heat" "Sea Cow" & "Mehran"). This group came to my attention around the time I saw Blurt will come to my home country, another group whose early work I really liked for its original combination of sax with voice and band.
I can't make up yet what the soprano voice sings about. I can only say it tickles lots of sympathy. The longest track, "A Dream of Things," also the slowest in rhythm, uses bird sounds amongst the brass. "Wind in the Sun" is closest to jazz-pop. On "Not for Me," which is a bit more free-styled, Yvette's voice becomes bird-like too. The track "Stop It" is funny when the singer near the end seems to ask gently to stop the song when it's over 2:30 minutes. The most attractively arranged track might be "I Fly", which repeats the first song arrangements a bit. It seems almost too short as one verse long, when the freer part suddenly seems like a middle part before the verse repeats itself. "I Hear It on the Vine" is a beautiful closer with nice electronic keyboards instead of brass and experimental avant-pop vocals, again human-is-a-bird-like.
A great, pleasant release, with a perfect length for what these expressions need.
Brooklyn-based Birdbrain's music is delirious, childlike, infectious.
These songs are beautiful. But it's too arty to be pop while not quite discordant enough to be art music. In that I'm reminded of both The Scene Is Now and Deerhoof. When all three horn players go at it, the World Saxophone Quartet springs clearly to mind, perhaps as reimagined by the Lounge Lizards? Structurally, I want to say that these strange songs remind me of Moondog; I also envision some high school band practice with the kids slipping in some Dolphy or Mingus when the teacher's away.
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