The first solo album by David Rotheray, former lead guitarist and co-writer with '90s jazz-pop juggernauts the Beautiful South, shows that underneath all of the group's acerbic wit and poetic tales of kitchen sink mundanity, there lay a much more emotive core. Accompanied by an impressive "who's who" of British folk vocalists, including Mercury Music Prize nominee Kathryn Williams, folk dynasty member Eliza Carthy, and actress Camille O'Sullivan, ornithological concept album The Life of Birds still possesses the kind of droll humor that has characterized frontman Paul Heaton's efforts, as evident on "The Digital Cuckoo," a bittersweet ballad based on a technophobe's shunning of modern advances, and the diatribe against the X Factor culture of instant gratification on "Cover Your Garden Over." But elsewhere, Rotheray, who doesn't sing a note on its 14 tracks, utilizes his impressive guest list to display a surprisingly tender and often heart-wrenching lyrical ability, whether it's the country-tinged "Sweet Forgetfulness" and mournful torch song "Almost Beautiful," both of which bravely tackle the subject of Alzheimer's disease, the cabaret show tune of "The Best Excuse in the World (Is the Truth)," which deals with the dilemma of a middle-aged man battling with his sexuality, or the reflection on children's mortality on the appropriately solemn piano chords and somber strings of "Taller Than Me." Its dominant downbeat nature may be a little too heavy for some, with only the baroque Divine Comedy-esque chamber pop of bookends "The Sparrow, the Thrush & the Nightingale" and the pedal steel guitar-laden "The Hummingbird on Your Calendar" deviating from the melancholic acoustic arrangements. But after nearly 20 years of jaunty radio-friendly singalongs, Rotheray can be forgiven for firmly embracing the more introspective side of life, something that The Life of Birds suggests fully suits him.
AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien