A Lot Like Birds - No Place
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Equal Vision Records
It begins with the soft chimes that you often hear once you've rang a doorbell. Friendly? In some ways. Inviting? Only for so long. To call it a home would be misleading, a haunting and entrancing would be more sufficient descriptors of the house A Lot Like Birds have imagined for their follow up to 2011's Conversation Piece. The bittersweet unfoldings and the revelatory manifestations of No Place are so much more emotive and expansive that a typical "compare and contrast" review of these releases would be reductive and nearly impossible.
First off, the elements of Conversation Piece are upheld and expanded upon, most notably with the spoken word element as you'll notice within the first few seconds of "In Trances." No Place opens with the first of its monologues, an introductory statement that provide a background story to the decrepit home illustratively depicted as barren and lifeless, but full of vivid memories, though not all pleasant ones. This is the conceptual center that is explored in every proceeding track. Room by room, you experience the emotional core that these memories exhibit and the end result is both touching and brutally honest, something that few albums of the genre can claim. "No Nature" takes us to an instrumentally astounding soundscape, riddled with ambient flourishes packed in finger-tapped guitar licks, sporadic bass lines that ride the mix, and electronics that slip in and out of consciousness in this room of the home: the basement. Thematically, this concept perfectly aligns with the schizophrenic and claustrophobic music that seems to follow no clear sense of direction but not to the point where it feels completely out of control. Though less palatable, the basement becomes one of the darkest rooms of the home so if you feel jolted by its presence in "No Nature," don't worry: just exit and leave for the living room featured in "No Nurture."
"Father, the day you die, I hope you die in a living room." The most self-aware irony presented on No Place summarizes the track adequately, though not immediately. The song opens with a fully orchestrated interlude that feel cold yet oddly at peace. Again, A Lot Like Birds display an uncanny ability for their poetic content to work fluidly with the musical aspect, perfect reflections of each other. Once the full band comes in, Travis and Lockwood provide their exchanges that express a slow and painful realization of absence, of connection and of life. This element is brought to its full meaning in the closing lyric: "They say 'Like father, like son.' Is that the reason that every time a person loves me, I find it hard to love them back?" Pretty bleak stuff. Hardly a room that's fit for life and the things that comprise it.
The tour of the house continues to the bathroom in what I would consider the album's best single choice: "Next To Ungodliness." It features a more direct presentation that actually feels punk at heart (which I'd say is directly the result of Joe Arrington's masterful drumming and Michael Littlefield's interlocked bass lines) surrounded by thick chords and elongated vocal structures. The frontal presentation simmers to a frustrated close that becomes distorted and finally dissipates. Maybe this is the musical portrayal of the protagonist staring into the mirror enough to fall prey to their own scrutiny? Whatever the case, you feel the desperation in a blatant way. "Connector" does the same but in a precisely arranged manner that literally leaves me taken back. Its progressive introduction is a production masterpiece and shines so brightly that even if were to take nothing else from the album, you would still fall in love with the first 40 seconds of this song. The dissonance gradually intensifies and the track steadily increases in speed, as if you were hearing music in a distant room and quickly decided to seek out its origin. You'd take the hallway, the 'room' featured in "Connector." As the title implies, this is what brings each room to each other, the spine of the home. Here, the entire band shines in every way. The musicianship is much tighter and the individual improvements of technical ability are especially evident. The fluttering, almost 8-bit sounding leads make way for that ambient tremolo picking that subtly weave throw the atmosphere, an oddly signature sound for guitarists Michael Franzino and Ben Wiacek that highlights their ear for minute but innovative contributions to melody and tone.
The latter half of the album is where it will be made of be made broken, based totally on preference of the listener, starting with the albums interlude "Myth of The Lasting Symphony" which has the presence of a slam poetry open mic. Cory Lockwood's spoken word voice escalates with his words and the accompanying assortment of instruments like bells and stuttering drum samples that are reminiscent of an antique music box. In its raw form, the words are beautiful and especially resonant to the reflective mind. But if you have a inkling against spoken word delivery, you may be off put. The same goes for the romantic bedroom in "Hand Over Mouth, Over and Over." Musically restrained, the song features some more monologue, this time of love and escape, though it's pacing feels a bit strange and rushed at its climax, having been so drawn out only moments before. This sense of movement admittedly is successful in the context of the album but feels flat as a stand-alone.
But not to worry: "Kuroi Ledge," the first song released off of No Place, strikes a particularly impressive balance. The balcony is the vocalists's showcase: Kurt Travis has the chance to shine more than any other time on the album with his range fluctuating over a bold kick drum and empowering symphonic melodies, whereas Cory Lockwood delivers more monologue that syncs to the rhythm of the music and is accentuated fantastically, evolving into forceful screams, past the pleasantries that Travis just left. From "follow me, follow me" to "the promises we made were made hollowly," the music and vocals work in harmony and shift together, ironically making the only uplifting-sounding song the most morbid so far, as it harbors resentment of loss. That feverish and lethal mentality transfers over musically to the attic in "Recluse." Much like the basement in "No Nature," the attic feels perilous, even more dangerous in its delivery. The chord progression is difficult to catch onto, and as much as it displays mature songwriting skills, this is where the eclectic facet of A Lot Like Birds will probably lose some listeners. The track feels a bit cluttered and overridden with sound effects, to the point where they may distract more than they contribute. Again, nothing inherently wrong with the style or the execution, just something that isn't always personally preferred.
"Shaking of the Frame" closes the album exceedingly well, as a summation of everything we've heard, from the hectic to the subdued characteristics of A Lot Like Birds. With the final song, we aren't given a specific room. Rather, we're given the ones that remain unoccupied and stay the same, despite the passing of time or the aging of the home's residents. The drumming, crunchy guitar picking, trumpet fanfare and general rhythmic progression develops a western sound, one last surprise pulled out for the end, providing the easiest track to follow along with as No Place departs with a certain ambiguity, the same sense evoked by the title of the album and of the concept that it bears. Once its all over, we have so much creative and poignant pickings to choose from, bringing A Lot Like Birds to a more relatable platform and featuring more sophisticated subject matter than that of earlier material, no matter how clever such songs were. At the same time, No Place seems to sacrifice some of the flamboyance that surfaced through the hooks and the catchy accessibility that made earlier work more digestible for a casual listener. Whether that's a good or bad thing is completely left to musical preference. Conversation Piece begged to be repeated for the aforementioned reasons, but No Place is such an ambitious endeavor that it pleads for its own repeats but for different reasons, and strong reasons, I might add: the improved musicianship, the blunt and frustrated lyricism, the poetic vocal monologues, or whatever the case may be. Be prepared to invest some time to get to know every little detail that lies so deeply within this home. There really is no place like it.