By Mark Rozeman
The term “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is one age-old adage still worthy of being followed. Yet, when it comes to the arts—particularly music—absolutes such as this can be a bit iffy. There’s something to be said for how experimentation, though a risky proposition, often bring bands and artists to a whole new level of their career. For every woefully failed artistic detour such as The Decemberists’ entry into heavy, prog rock-level theatrics with The Hazards of Love or Lil Wayne’s ultra ill-fated reinvention as a rock star with Rebirth, there are multiple instances where breaking the formula makes for a proverbial home run, whether it be Wilco’s chameleon-like career or Radiohead’s out-of-left-field electronic masterpiece Kid A.
On their sophomore release, Athens, Ga.-based group Futurebirds stand as a band confident in their sound and skilled in their delivery. Yet, they also come across as a band in need of stretching their boundaries.
Baba Yaga finds the band again exploring the spacy Americana milieu that defined their debut album, Hampton’s Lullaby. Back again are the lush harmonies, ubiquitous pedal steel riffs and haunting reverb that characterized that 2010 alt-country release.
“Virginia Slims” starts things off in earnest, with Carter King’s caterwaul soaring over the undulating echoes of a steel guitar. It’s a gentle leadoff reminiscent of softer numbers by My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses. Likewise, “American Cowboy” displays the quiet intensity of a Blitzen Trapper track.
The rest of the album’s 13-track runtime follows a similar formula, with the overarching, slow-burning style aiming for idyllic, meditative reflection rather than the kind of fist-pumping crescendos demonstrated by several of those aforementioned bands.
And here’s where the cracks begin to show. Without a doubt Baba Yaga is a lovely, delicately crafted album. That being said, the band’s predilection towards mid-tempo rhythm leads to several stretches where songs blur together or stretch on for so long (the album’s songs average about five minutes) that the momentum is all but shot. Moreover, listening to certain songs, one gets the feeling that the compositions have lost a certain spark in the transfer from stage to studio.
Occasionally this slow-but-steady-wins-the race approach yields significant returns as with the luminous album closer “St. Summercamp,” or the centerpiece “Digs” which begins as a standard mid-tempo rocker only to twist and turn into a hypnotic groove in its second half before descending into a pounding, guitar-shredding finale.
Other songs like “Keith & Donna” and “Felix Helix,” however, feel quite interchangeable, in spite of the former’s incorporation of some lovely, shimmering guitar work. Eventually, what one could call “languid” and “lo fi” eventually begins to resemble “sleepy” and “tedious.”
Certainly, there are breaks in this tone. The fantastic “Serial Bowls,” for instance, is proof of the band’s capabilities in crafting an up-tempo, bouncy single. Ultimately, however, Baba Yaga’s sense of sameness is its undoing.
In an indie scene where recontextualizing the sounds of country and Americana for a more modern spin has become the norm, Futurebirds still have a ways to go in distinguishing themselves from some of their contemporaries. They have the skills. They have the songs. All they need is some time to tinker.