For his 2018 Nonesuch debut, the poignant Book of Travelers, songwriter/composer Gabriel Kahane delivered a song cycle inspired by going phone-free on a 13-day, nearly 9,000-mile train trip immediately following the 2016 U.S. presidential election -- the idea being to interact with his fellow countrymen in fully human form. His less-social label follow-up, Magnificent Bird, is related conceptually in that it collects songs written during a self-imposed year with no Internet (late 2019 to October 2020). Little did he know that the COVID-19 pandemic would proliferate in the meantime, so when it came time to record selections culled from dozens of resulting songs, he re-embraced the technology in order to include contributions from around a dozen musician friends. One of the most personnel-heavy tracks on an intimate set that affects with its detailing is "To Be American," a song that remembers the misguided innocence of youth "Before the trench coats and the roped off rooms/The shell-shocked mothers and the TV crews." The track opens with Punch Brothers' Chris Thile (mandolin) and Paul Kowert (double bass) alongside Andrew Bird (violin) on slightly unsettling but grooving plucked strings before Kahane joins in with his typically lyrical, tonality-shifting vocals and piano. The song also features Ted Poor on likewise subtly off-balance percussion, and Caroline Shaw on ghostly backing vocals behind condemning lyrics like "Drain everything, land of the plenty." Another of the more collaborative tracks, the trippier "The Basement Engineer," highlights Kahane's piano and warped synths while adding playful accompaniment by Alexandra Sopp on flute and piccolo as well as avant-folkies Sam Amidon and Holcombe Waller on choral-like backing vocals. Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath contributes harmony vocals to another plugged-in track, the pandemic-acknowledging "Linda & Stuart" ("The deliverymen, in their light blue surgical masks/Knock twice, leave groceries double-bagged at the door"). Elsewhere, tracks like "We Are the Saints" and "The Hazelnut Tree" are wistful, near-solo piano songs with added touches like the quietly howling noise and siren-like effects of the latter (a combination of Kahane's synths and violin by Pekka Kuusisto). Magnificent Bird closes on the most personal song of them all, "Sit Shiva," which mourns the loss of Kahane's grandmother with a light, bittersweet touch. Another piano-synth crossover entry, it features Casey Foubert and Joseph Lorge on guitars and vocal accompaniment by Elizabeth & the Catapult's Elizabeth Ziman. Graceful and moving throughout, the album's ten tracks are far from elaborate, drifting by in less than 30 minutes like fleeting thoughts while adding another piece of cultural Americana to Kahane's discography, despite its individualistic origins.
Magnificent Bird Review
by Marcy Donelson