Birds Fly Backwards

Boy with a Fish

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Birds Fly Backwards Review

by James Christopher Monger

Upstate New York can be a lonely place. Somewhere between the Pennsylvanian border and the Finger Lakes the seasoned traveler comes to the realization that he has entered into the mouth of H.P. Lovecraft's New England, and are at the mercy of the pines -- Ithaca's Boy With a Fish's debut record is that trip's soundtrack. Guitarist/songwriter Jeff Claus and violinist Judy Hyman have been mining the rich veins of the region's sepia-toned melancholy since the 1980s as members of the eclectic bluegrass/ Gothic-folk-rock outfit the Horseflies, and Birds Fly Backwards revisits many of the themes and styles that made their previous incarnation so invigorating -- "People Go Under" was originally released instrumentally as the main theme on the Horseflies soundtrack to Where the Rivers Flow North. Although Hyman's manic fiddling is more refined here, and Claus' spooky banjo is nowhere to be found, the 12 songs embrace the duo's long history of innovative arrangements and minor-chord majesty with an elegance that's both chilly and heartwarming. The beautiful opener, "Sometimes," is like a walk through an abandoned main street. It's deceptive simplicity aches with a lethal combination of nostalgia and regret, warmed only by the toasty glow of Rick Hansen's accordion. "Plastic Raincoat" inhabits the murky netherworld between the end credits to a horror film and a bonfire singalong, lurching like a midnight prowler against a rhythm section that somehow manages to fuse backwoods roots-rock with reggae. Lyrically, Claus is fascinated by imagery, and his stream-of-consciousness delivery makes lines like "Violins and gasoline\walk on water in between" resonate for no other reason than his conviction of their undeniable truth -- that the band plays like a single organism doesn't hurt either. Observational tales of neighborhood loneliness ("Out Into the Empty") and irreverent narratives about aging ("Glasses") carry beneath them a sense of deep emotional attachment that makes their bittersweet protagonists all the more poignant. When Claus sings "I've got pencils and matches in my pockets for you/I write you notes, then I burn them and send them to you" on the gorgeous "Red Sparrow Bridge," the arc of Birds Fly Backwards' loneliness is rendered complete, leaving the listener back where they started, ready to make the journey all over again.

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