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Music Consumption: The Lesser Birds of Paradise
10/23/2003 The Lesser Birds of Paradise: It Isn't the Fall

Here's a promising disc of folksy, alt-countryish indie pop, which has been in my CD player and in iTunes a fair amount. The Lesser Birds of Paradise come on gentle and approachable, with a streak of endearing oddness that pops up winningly in solos, bridges, and in occasional lyrics (more about which shortly). I'm particularly drawn in by singer/songwriter Mark Jenka's great sense of vocal melody and the group's feel for instrumentation--and here I also detect the welcome fingerprints of producer (and ex-Coctail) Barry Phipps. (The disc was exquisitely recorded at Barry's studio.) Full Disclosure: I was on tour in July and met up with Barry in Chicago; he gave me a stack of CDs he'd been working on, including this one.

The disc starts strong and inviting with "If You Wanted," a gentle lover's entreaty over a loping accompaniment of acoustic guitar, uke, accordion, drums, and Barry's upright bass. It's a great example of Jenka's gift for vocal melodies. There's an endearing front-porch feel to the playing and the arrangement through the first verse, helped in part by Jenka's plain, clean voice. Then out of nowhere, there's a surprisingly lush bridge (complete with Mellotron samples) that kicks the beauty level up several notches, and leads right into...a stylophone solo! (That'd be one of those inspired, left-field arrangement choices I'm digging.) The second time around, it leads to a warm, shimmering baritone guitar line and the stylophone again, with perhaps the sole misstep on the song--the breaths between backing "oooohs" are accentuated, which I found distracting at first, but on multiple listens, I can say it does nothing to diminish the song's beauty.

Some other high points: the vocal melody (particularly on the chorus) and the gorgeous bowed vibes played by yet another ex-Coctail, Mark Greenberg, on "Quitter's Waltz"; the tasty electric and baritone guitar touches of "Boy (Song for K)"; the bizarre disjuncture between Jenka's deadpan, sincere voice and the viciously funny lyrics of "Into Pieces," along with the beautiful Theremin solo (which is accompanied by a nicely edgy sound on the guitar), and the cheerful Optigan during the verses...and the lovely radio sample at the end; and the intro to the last tune, "'Til Next Spring," which starts with one of the more interesting mix choices I've heard--serious high-end rolloff at the beginning of the fade-in, so that when it finally comes in, the high end on the harmonica is striking in contrast.

I have to point out that the vocal melodies are very good throughout, particularly on choruses, and most of these songs feature surprisingly engaging, moving bridges, too. If there's a weakness here, it's that the lyrics occasionally display some unfortunately obvious choices at line and verse endings, but some additional time spent on editing should pay off. Overall, well done, guys.

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