Dirtbird – Spirit Kings Review

Dirtbird at the Bridge Hotel Castlemaine March 2016

Once again dirtbird have crafted an album of intimate, haunting and powerful songs that they are known and loved for. This is the band’s first vinyl album and it feels like this recording was made for that medium. Engrossing, spooky, hymnal music that demands the listener’s attention.

Regular readers of this blog, and I know there’s at least one of you, will know about my love affair with this shifting idiosyncratic musical collective, fronted by the masterful musical storyteller and cheerleader for the end-times, David M. Lewis. For fans of their work, dirtbird is a band that manages to sound distinctly different and yet strangely familiar at the same time. The fact that dirtbird has managed to do this from album to album with a changing roster of collaborators is a testament to Lewis’ songwriting strength and devotion to the vision that he’s maintained and manifested over the 15 odd years of his band’s existence. Lewis has captured and raised his own sound, with the skill of the true artist, beholden to none but his craft and his muse, whispering lovingly in his ear.

Lisa Marmur joins Lewis on this album as foil to his rustic tenor/baritone. As Lewis wails, croons and hollers, Marmur does an admirable job keeping an even keel and steady wind in the sails of melody that your archetypal dirtbird song calls for. Joining the male/female duet this time around is Glendon Blazely (Grumpy Neighbour), whose gorgeous and guttural bass is like a dragging anchor, stirring up the mud, and allowing the songs to flow with a deep beauty in their wake. Blazely’s addition to the band is inspired. As a talented multi-instrumentalist, he helps dirtbird sound at times like a ghostly junkyard orchestra, as his horn, banjo and saw add depth and colours never before seen on a dirtbird recording. Add to this mix the double-bass, sound treatment and percussion and of course Lewis’ masterful riffing on the dobro and guitar and this twilight music now shine so much brighter.

The album opens with the beautiful Reservoir, a hymn to the finding of things previously unknown and recently uncovered – the secret space inside that sings us our personal song of acceptance. It’s quite an up tempo number, for dirtbird anyway, and beautifully introduces the new gems this recording has to offer by taking a familiar dirtbird tool, the 8 bar looped riff, to let us know we are in familiar and safe hands. This approach is echoed in the next song, the title track Spirit Kings, which clearly states that we are now on a journey to the less charted realms – into the dark and through the fire.

We take a left turn with the third song, The Whole Damn Place Belongs To You. We are tiptoeing through the wreckage now. The opening sound treatment hints at a rough ride ahead. Here the 3 voices of the band are put to amazing effect. The mood is reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s seminal post rock masterpiece The Dead Flag Blues, condensed into 5 and half minutes of ominous beauty.

We are given a brief respite from the inner terror with the plaintive instrumental High Golden Cloud before the potent The Secret Lake leads us into a place of wild vision. This track is probably the high water mark on this album. This is an amazingly crafted song, with lows and highs, builds and falls that make you glad to have ears to hear, a heart to feel and a brain to try and understand this visionary testament.

We descend from the rarified air of this mountain lake into a valley of lost souls. “We are un-numbered, we are un-named,” the band intones. Whether that is something to be relished or reviled is a question for each of us to answer, yet it is still one we all confront in a world that seeks exceptionalism, yet only celebrates that in a heady few. The rest of us, those cast to the side, sing along with dirtbird, happy to have found a song to call our own. As is not uncommon with dirtbird’s music, Un-numbered, Un-named is a stunning, hypnotic piece of music that cuts to the core. Meaning is shifting and only implied and is gently hammered into our souls through the chanted repetition of Lewis’ beautiful poetry throughout the verses and the ear-worm of a chorus.

Appropriately we are left with a song that sounds like something remembered in a dream. Come and Live With Me Beneath The Waves could be a siren song, or a tune playing mechanically on a spectral player-piano in a dilapidated ghost town Tavern. It lingers with a plaintive bitter sweetness that leaves one breathless and ready to lift the needle and flip the disc to listen to this whole damn beautiful masterpiece again.

Also, appropriately, this is Dirtbird’s first vinyl LP, an achievement that has been a long time coming. This music sounds like it was made with that in mind… it is a potent blending of peerless song writing and idiosynchratic performance that demands to be immortalized on something as bold and monumental and yet as fragile and easily mishandled as a vinyl disc.

Bravo! dirtbird. This album is definitely one to be listened to again and again until the grooves are worn and the songs are etched into the listener’s brain.

Spirit Kings is released via Hawkmoth Records and is available now. You can get a copy by contacting the band via email or their Facebook Page. It’s also available at Poison City Records in Melbourne and Record Low in Castlemaine.

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