Birds And Arrows: Out of the Cage
By Corbie Hill
When Birds and Arrows covered Genesis’ progressive rock staple “Carpet Crawlers,” the Chapel Hill band likely didn’t know it would change its sonic dynamic. “I feel like I came out of the prog closet,” says Pete Connolly, drummer and half of the songwriting team of the co-ed folk-pop trio. “We could all be more honest about our influences. We could be a folky band that grew up listening to prog.” And with the resulting expanded palette of its latest record, We’re Gonna Run, the band may have also found the key to avoiding a sophomore slump.
“I forgot about that phrase,” guitarist and vocalist Andrea Connolly laughs, sitting on the porch with her husband Pete and cellist Josh Starmer. “I feel so much more confident in this record.”
We’re Gonna Run is a powerfully varied document by a band suffering no drought of ideas. The Connollys insist it’s because they’re unashamed of their influences. “I didn’t realize how Pink Floyd the song ‘Three Ponies’ is until I got to the studio,” Pete says, after engineer Nick Petersen pointed out its Dark Side of the Moon feel. Andrea finishes her husband’s thought with a defiant, “and we’re like, ‘let’s embrace the shit.’”
The Connollys formed Bird and Arrows almost five years ago as a guitar-and-drums duo. They met Starmer in Graveyard Fields, an intermittent Chapel Hill sextet headed by area songwriter Brian Risk. “I would show up at rehearsals and I would aim my amplifier at Andrea,” Starmer admits. His bandmates, to whom this is new info, laugh. “I remember the cello being extra-loud,” Andrea says. Yet something clicked, and two years ago Starmer joined.
We’re Gonna Run — the first record as a trio — is also the first Birds and Arrows release that doesn’t sound wholly folk-rock. Woodgrain Heart, the 2008 EP, worked from a bleak, intimately introspective singer-songwriter foundation, while 2009’s Starmaker struck a poppier — but still predominately folky — note.
Still, many of the band’s signatures are intact on the new record: Andrea’s blues-queen belt intertwines with Pete’s Wayne Coyne-like conversational rasp, neither voice dominating in these democratic dual leads. Then there’s the sleepy western swing of “Weeping Willow.” Topically, the Connollys still apply everyday imagery – spoons in a drawer, unbalanced washing machines – without going totally Hallmark.
But even if the band isn’t completely reinventing itself, it’s hard to ignore the new elements. Andrea went wild with a contact mic and various pedals, gathering ten minutes of squelching noise that she inserted in various tracks as she mixed We’re Gonna Run. Near the end of “Summer’s Gone,” for instance, there’s a wash of clatter and feedback that builds into something more familiar to a Spiritualized record. It’s short, but distinct, rolling in like heavy weather before dropping out suddenly.
Elsewhere, some songs feature percussive reverb splashes and We’re Gonna Run even opens with a hollow midrange whine. Yet this drone morphs into the warmth of drowsy hands moving across worn keys, like the tones of an aged organ in some rural church. These noise accents are meant to be just a “bit edgy,” Andrea explains, but “not enough where it’s uncomfortable because that’s not the kind of music I love.”
Mishandled, this could be the most saccharine stuff imaginable: the adorably in-love, harmonizing married couple with cellist in tow could “make angels cry,” as Andrea jokes. “But it would get really boring,” Starmer picks up. The cuteness remains, but it’s been tempered by noise and prog-influences. If this is a Hallmark card, there’s a dirty joke scrawled inside. And that’s probably why it works.