Brown Bird

Axis Mundi

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Released just over a year after the untimely death of founder, singer, songwriter, and guitarist David Lamb, who succumbed to leukemia after receiving the diagnosis while on tour in early 2013, Brown Bird's final album is as honest, defiant, evocative, and emotionally fragile as any of the group's prior outings, but it's hard not listen to these 16 songs -- all of which are demos that Lamb recorded before his passing, that have been tastefully fleshed out by his wife/Brown Bird cohort MorganEve Swain -- without feeling the weight of their inception. Lamb, a monster guitarist with a soulful croon and a knack for infusing bluesy, rootsy, and percussive Americana with bold shades of European and Middle Eastern folk music, is as compelling a figure as ever, channeling everyone from Tom Waits and Nick Cave to Bonnie "Prince" Billy and 16 Horsepower. Unlike earlier works, Axis Mundi doesn't rely solely on trying to emulate the group's sparse (but powerful) live show, and the numerous overdubs lend the whole affair a significant amount of muscle, especially on more propulsive cuts like "Pale and Paralyzed," "Sackcloth & Ash," "Smoke Rises," and the aptly named "Raging Squall." Swain inserts her harmonies, violin, and cello tastefully throughout (her rich, Gillian Welch-style, polyphonic layering on the brooding opener "Focus" is particularly affecting), but Brown Bird has always been Lamb's baby, and he carries each song with purpose. The group's melancholic nature, which has been apparent since day one, helps Axis Mundi feel less like a eulogy and more like a straight-up sixth studio album; a fine distillation of all of Brown Bird's strengths. That it turns out to be the duo's closing statement and not just a mid-career highlight is what devastates.

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