In Brief: Birds & Cages is a solid follow-up that scores just a few points shy of the five-star glory of Deas Vail’s first album. It ain’t for lack of trying.
Sometimes a musical work comes along where I’m in love with the sound and style of it, but have a difficult time picking out individual song highlights at first, or really even explaining why I love it so much. This was the case for me with the sophomore album by Arkansas band Deas Vail, which slipped in under most people’s radars last October (with a physical release in November, and even that was just through their website), arriving in just in the nick of time to secure a spot on both my Best of 2009 and Best of the Ought Nots lists, but proving difficult to summarize when it came time to back up my praise with some evidence. The group had concocted such a phenomenal set of fast-paced yet slowly-morphing, dreamy piano rock songs on their debut (along with a few stunning ballads) that it was hard to say anything different about the second time around – they seemed to have done more of the same and excelled at it once again. I knew this would lead some to criticize the band for a lack of growth, but I didn’t care – my only reason for sticking this one at the very high end of 4 stars rather than giving them the full 5 was because the highlights this time around weren’t quite as euphoric as those on their first disc, All the Houses Look the Same (the highlights comprising most of the disc in that case).
Birds & Cages is one of those records that I now feel guilty for not reviewing in full, but at the same time, part of me is glad I held off. There’s a thoughtful quality to Deas Vail’s songwriting that is consistent enough from song to song that it really takes time to delve into each one. There’s also a heavenly beauty to the near-falsetto vocals of Wes Blaylock and the harmonies often provided by his wife Laura Beth Blaylock, who also serves as the band’s musical backbone on piano. Even on the rare song that goes for the more conventional, guitar-based approach (Andy Moore being no slouch on that instrument, either), the choruses are usually soaring and spine-tingling. The rhythm section of Kelsey Harrelson (drums) and Justin Froning (bass) helps to ensure that there’s never too typical of a pop approach taken here, though, guiding Deas Vail through unconventional shifts in rhythm and sometimes even fooling us into thinking the standard 4/4 is anything but. It’s that last component that is perhaps the group’s secret weapon and yet their only true weakness – a verse will often not give away where it’s going due to a chorus that shoots off in a different musical direction, and because of this, the listener will remember liking parts of a song but sometimes be unable to attach those memories back to the actual song they came from. This can sometimes thwart the emotional impact of a song that has some insightful observations to make about rescue and redemption, a theme which shows up many times throughout an album which appropriately shows a bird on top of its cage in the cover photo. To finally click with this theme is to feel set free – it just requires careful listening to get beyond just hearing pretty sounds and dazzling rhythms and to get what they’re really trying to communicate.
1. The Things You Were
The opener is a good taste of all of Deas Vail’s key ingredients, but not necessarily their formula. Soothing keyboards? Check? Shimmering guitar? Check. Unusual rhythm. Check. (The lopsided nature of it reminds me of Mae‘s “The House that Fire Built”.) Soaring chorus? Ohhhhhh yeah. It’s a song that seeks to lift up the extraordinary found in the midst of the everyday. Perhaps it’s a struggle of faith and ritual becoming commonplace, and the mystery and wonder of knowing God turning into a routine, only to be jolted out of that daze by something miraculous. “You were ordinary ’til you came and saved me”, Wes swoons during the chorus, as if to say he wants to start this record off by looking at the things he believes with a new pair of eyes. And did I mention a gorgeous vocal breakdown by Laura Beth during the bridge? Not a given in every Deas Vail song, but it’s one of their most potent weapons when they bring it out.
2. Growing Pains
I love how this one just takes off with a speedy drum roll and a zig-zagging guitar melody. Andy and Kelsey intertwine in a rather unorthodox manner here, finding different ways to play in 6/8 time as the song rolls on through its verse and collides into its high-flying rush of a chorus. It’s intricate, and yet it’s catchy, and you just might strain something trying to hit Wes’s high notes here. Once you untangle the lyrics, it’s actually a simple song about learning stuff the hard way and clinging to old memories and not wanting to be honest about the difficulties of aging, but finding out in the end that sharing your struggles is more fulfilling than keeping them hidden. As Wes puts it, “What is life kept to ourselves? Careful words composed/It’s a book upon the shelf, a story never told.” Alright, so he fell for the old “self/shelf” rhyming cliche, but I can’t dock too many points for that when the song is otherwise breathtakingly composed, an ideal balance between energy and intricacy.
This might be the album’s most straightforward song – the “single”, if such a word means anything in Deas Vail’s niche of the market. The punchy drums are much more direct, the rhythm doesn’t deviate from 4/4, and it’s got a medium-to-fast pace that lurches ahead nicely for the chorus without breaking up the flow of things. The lyrics are more basic, a plea to a friend or lover to not face troubles alone and to not run from them. It’s a workable enough tune, not bad at all by radio standards, but ultimately less interesting than anything on All the Houses. I like it, but have a hard time knowing what else to say about it since the tracks around it stand out a lot more.
The first of two winning title tracks shows up here (and I like how they’re presented in reverse of the album title), another fast-paced, rock-oriented song that captivates with its quick, cymbal-heavy rhythm and its forceful vocals. The verse is the main hook of the song here, throwing out interesting little barbs like “I’m scared I could slowly love you to death” or “We’ll pretend that we can explain, but we know we don’t know” before the band cuts the pace to half-time for more of a conventional, power-driven chorus that proclaims “I’d give anything to make it better”. There’s a claustrophobic feeling to the layers of sound which gradually gets peeled away as Laura Beth’s soothing piano melody, intentionally played in a 5/4 rhythm to contradict the steady 4/4 that the rest of the band is following, begins to break in during the bridge. Eventually, that’s all that’s left of the song, as the gang vocals of the chorus and Wes’s final words (“Somebody will come and let us out of our cages”) systematically fade away. So many little detours, and yet such a tight song – this is my #1 favorite on the album.
We almost have to back up a bit in the narrative to get into the mindset of this song, since its mid-tempo, minor key, somewhat despairing mood gives us hints at the reasons why we all became locked in our cages in the first place. Pounding piano and elegant strings are woven together beautifully in the verses of this song, but the chorus takes it in a completely different direction, sort of echoing the fakeout in their song “Last Place” where you have to figure out the rhythm to it with the drums absent at first, but a little easier to follow. They’re switching from common time to 3/4, which is a bit jarring at first, but it really draws attention to the beautiful prayer that gets repeated in this refrain: “Oh God, how much does it take for us to be loved, for us to be saved? We all are birds stuck inside our cage, covered up with praise, and behind our saints, we hide our face.” I love how the concepts of sin, hypocrisy, and the need for grace are summed up so succinctly there without it being too heavy-handed. And that’s just the first half of the song. It shoots off in a completely different direction during the bridge, after Laura Beth’s dark piano interlude brings us to a coda that finds the band picking up the pace, lost once again in intricate drum patterns and overlapping vocals (with Wes’s winsome falsetto once again at the forefront). There’s a lot of complexity to this one, but it’s all woven into a very satisfying whole.
6. Tell Me
A simple piano and vocal piece teases at the chorus of the upcoming song.
7. Dance in Perfect Time
There’s something almost immediately romantic about this tune – even though it’s up-tempo like most of the album, there’s more of a delicate vulnerability to it. This one isn’t long on lyrics – just a few verses at the beginning which set up the idea of lovers leaving an old life behind to take up residence somewhere new and uncertain, then a calm midsection which leaves plenty of open space for another patented Laura Beth breakdown, and this one might even top “The Things You Were” as Wes joins in near the end of it, the band picking up steam and finally coming back around to the chorus previews in “Tell Me” as the final payoff. The way husband and wife harmonize here is breathtaking – they are dancing in perfect time just as the song suggests.
This would be the closest that Deas Vail gets to “rocking out”, I think – Andy kicks off with more of a grumbling, distorted guitar intro and then the band plunges headlong into a kamikaze course built around an offbeat rhythm. It’s a jolting effect – the chorus is yet another winner, quite nearly recapturing the light-speed joy of “Rewind” from the band’s first album, but it sneaks up on you rather quickly, the verses cutting suddenly back to that guitar intro or just diving headlong into the chorus, Wes and Laura nearly shouting the word “Suuuuuuuunlight!” with glee while lamenting that we never let this beautiful thing actually touch us or change us. Then the bottom drops out for a quiet keyboard interlude, which leads to a slow build back to the final refrain. It’s a bumpy ride,and one of my favorite moments on the album because of that.
9. Puzzles and Pieces
Even though this track doesn’t sound a thing like “Dance in Perfect Time”, I got the two confused at first because well, this cute little waltz of a song talks about dancing, too. It’s an intimate moment, the electric piano inviting the guitar to show its softer, more gentlemanly side, as Wes turns over the debate between faith and science in his head. He compares concrete things like “pillars and numbers” to his fantastical side, the side that wants to believe in things unseen and “dance with the hopes of falling in love”. The song doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at a lean two and a half minutes, but its last words pack a punch: “How can we love if we can’t love ourselves?”
10. The Great Physician
From here on out, the band gets a bit more experimental with their arrangements, with this track standing out as perhaps the oddest entry on the album, with a delicate intro and outro that seem almost detached from the rest of the song, cutting very suddenly into the fury of Andy’s electric guitars before settling into the cascading rhythms of a comparatively calmer refrain. I see what they’re doing – it’s a conversation between patient and doctor, the verses expressing pain and suffering and the chorus offering wise advice: “Take your place under the hands of the great physician.” The problem with this juxtaposition of harsh and soothing sounds is that it makes the song a rather uneven ride. it’s probably the best example on this album of remembering a verse later on and remembering a chorus, but forgetting that they fit together. Not to say it isn’t memorable in its own right, but due to the schizophrenia, it’s probably my least favorite on the album.
11. The Leaper
I can’t help but think of the quirky time travel show Quantum Leap whenever the title for this one comes up. Alas, this song has nothing to do with inhabiting other people’s bodies to put right what once went wrong, or with tackily dressed, lecherous hologram observers. It seems to be a letter from an estranged father to his son – a man who took a leap of logic by leaving the things he knew and venturing out into the unknown. It could be that, or it could be the leap of faith a person takes when becoming a parent. I haven’t quite settled on an interpretation, but either way, I get goosebumps at the notion expressed in the chorus: “So I’ll leap from the edge, knowing nothing of the fall.” The melody itself seems a bit unsure, looping back on itself a few times during the verse, but progress forward with more of a conventional confidence during the chorus. The bridge is one of many stark but lovely interludes on this disc, filled with Wes and Laura’s soft “Ooh”s and a bit of drama from the string section. The preparation for this uncertain leap is the emotional climax of the album, not so much in the sheer force of its sound, but definitely in the sense that it proposes an all-or-nothing gamble, leaving us on an uncertain note as we head into the album’s final act.
The leaper was a diver, it seems, ending up in a lonely underwater city that might be a technical marvel, but which is still cold an artificial and thousands of miles from home. The rhythm of the piano is odd (5/4 again, I think), the mood is cold and detached, and even when the song fully comes to life, there’s some bizarre electronic stuff going on that makes the rhythm even harder to track momentarily. the arrangement tells almost as much of the story as the lyrics here, and it’s a desperate cry for help, a beacon sent out from a place that nobody knows how to find. (Hmmm, reminds me of the first season of LOST… or perhaps more appropriately, the last.) These could be the narrator’s final words as the oxygen runs out, but there’s a faint glimmer of hope in his words as he describes his predicament: “Frequently we’ll send a melody to to surface of the womb, where our hope of notice looms.” Perhaps this experience of being hopelessly lost is what leads to a rebirth, a newfound appreciation of the ordinary life back on dry land. The final chorus hangs unresolved, a string section taking over and echoing off into the watery depths, one final signal sent in the hope of an eleventh-hour rescue.
As entangled as I can become in some of these arrangements, I wouldn’t ever want Deas Vail to straighten things out and try to make it as a more conventional pop band. It’s their contrary, intricate nature that makes the hooks stand out and ensures that mood and texture play as important a role in the songs as the big, catchy melodies do. So maybe there’s the occasional moment where it doesn’t quite work, but the alluring glow given off by the majority of Deas Vail’s songs more than makes up for it. Birds & Cages should be a satisfying reprise for anyone who was fascinated with All the Houses Look the Same, and probably also a highly intriguing listen for a new fan who goes in with no concrete expectations. But there’s no substitute for listening to it closely. This caged bird sings loudest and prettiest when given genuine attention.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Things You Were $1.50
Growing Pains $1.50
Tell Me/Dance in Perfect Time $1.50
Puzzles and Pieces $1.50
The Great Physician $1
The Leaper $1.50
Wes Blaylock: Lead vocals, keyboards
Laura Beth Blaylock: Keyboards, synths, backing vocals
Andy Moore: Guitars
Kelsey Harelson: Drums
Justin Froning: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.