Birdlips and Wes Swing are two local folk acts that split their time between here and elsewhere, rely on live electronics and make the perfect bill for a quiet Saturday night concert in Nelson County. They are also much-loved locally, so I was surprised to find that, of the 15 or so people at Rapunzel’s last Saturday, two were babies.
Birdlips (pictured)—whom we bade farewell at a February concert—continues to travel in a project called “DRIFT,” which has the duo recording an EP wherever they can find free lodging. Meanwhile, Wes Swing has been splitting his time between Athens, Georgia, and Charlottesville, where he is putting the finishing touches on an album.
The wee ones would’ve been well-served to take note. Swing took the stage first with a cello and guitar, dressed simply and leaning into the microphone with closed eyes to croon his incantatory lyrics. After a few attempts to fix his cello, which crunched through the P.A., he conceded that his is “an instrument that was never meant to be amplified.” Swing considered amid-—or, perhaps, in spite of—advice from the audience, and when he found his groove, the way a cello is “meant” to sound became inconsequential.
Where a chamber pop artist might adorn a finished song with a series of pizzicatos, or a dramatic glissando, Swing uses these flourishes as a starting point. He utilizes a loop pedal to impressive effect, which allows him to compose, de- and reconstruct a single measure of an orchestra on the fly. This setup tends to lock a songwriter into a repetitive pattern, since all you can do is what you’ve already done, but Swing subverts these limitations with his lyrics, which are sparse, and loop with subtle repetition along with the music. (One song is Ezra Pound’s 14-word Imagist poem “In A Station of the Metro.”)
And the tricks didn’t stop there. Swing summoned from his loop pedal the prerecorded and disorienting choral line, a jagged rhythm that recalled Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints. The melody sent the audience adrift, but Swing reached for his guitar and plucked out a deceptively simple backing melody. That’s how his music works: even the most baroque line is underpinned by a simple melody.
Where Swing finds inspiration in snowballing oscillations, the mixed bag of life on the road has provided inspiration for Birdlips. The duo—Cliff Usher on guitar and Lindsay Pitts on keyboard—is touring behind a new project called “DRIFT” that’s bringing them wherever they can stay for free to record an EP. (Jaunts to San Francisco and Los Angeles have already produced two such works, Emanations and Powerlines. Both are available for free on the band’s website.)
On the band’s blog, Usher wrote that they spent several days “driving nonstop, hitting terrible traffic at some point in the day, sleeping for a few hours in some crummy motel, then waking up to do it all over again.” These largely unseen facets of life on the road have inspired some of the greatest rock music of the 20th century, and it sounds like Birdlips has been listening. They left the velvet rut and returned, having marinated in the sounds of the world.
When listening to Cardboard Wings, the band’s 2008 full-length, I sometimes found myself waiting for a crescendo that was never to come. But on Saturday night the music, which was already good, was even more gratifying, with higher highs and lower lows. On new tracks like “Powerlines,” Birdlips expands its list of influences—already broad and sometimes inscrutable—to include trip hop and Flaming Lips-style backing tracks, with gutteral low-end accompaniment. On the new track “Hours Later,” recorded in San Francisco, the duo coolly bobbed along as the song bust into something that resembled a mariachi jam. There’s no telling what they’ll bring back from a stint in—why not?—Pensacola, Florida.