The pairing of JT Nero (aka Jeremy Lindsay of JT and the Clouds) and Alice Russell (Po’ Girl) in a collective under the name Birds of Chicago is the sort of magnificent union you’re rooting for at a wedding with your eyes cast towards the altar with belief that two beloved friends will complement one another in a blessed marriage for a lifetime to come. Maybe conveying the strength of an album of twelve songs to a transitory, but hopefully longstanding, life experience as a matrimony celebration overinflates the achievement of Birds of Chicago, but maybe it does the trick in summing up the pleasures the duo brings to the table.
As Lindsay has proven for years under his JT Nero moniker, he is a first-rate songwriter with simultaneous knacks for potent earnestness and endearing wordplay that draws out stirring emotions you couldn’t foresee emanating from certain words and phrases. Nero has the enviable ability of delivering heartfelt folk with a straightforward workmanlike drawl, full-tilt boogie for atmospheric injections, and even old-school soul and R&B with a pretty range you may not expect. That Russell, who dishes out downright glorious soulful vocals, shares equal spotlight in Birds of Chicago only goes to obliterate any easy classification of Birds of Chicago’s sound. The duo, who operate under the name of Birds of Chicago so as to make the outfit a collective (sometimes as a duo, often as a trio with JT Nero’s gifted bassist, many times expanding out to a seven-piece band on festival stages), embrace the liveliest elements of singer-songwriter folk, pop, Americana, soul, doo-wop, country, bluegrass, and even Cajun on their self-titled debut.
Birds of Chicago is a sweet, deeply rewarding winner through and through. I settled my mind on that on first listen months ago. The album’s opener, “Trampoline,” had me wrapped around its finger on its rollicking groove that catapults the listener towards the heavens on the strength of a vibrant refrain (“World gonna be so cruel to you / World gonna be so mean / I’m gonna catch you when you’re falling through”) and Nero and Russell’s indelible harmonies. It’s a delicious duet bursting with vitality and heart, and it can fool you into feeling you’ve loved it for a lifetime on first listen. That’s not an achievement relegated to just “Trampoline;” Birds of Chicago offers a slew of verses and melodies that delightfully etch themselves into your mind and make you believe they are as worn-in and warm fireplace burning in your childhood home.
The magic Nero and Russell pull off most impressively is bringing enough energy to the songs to make the duets and harmonies feel like inspired improvisations in a live setting. The twelve songs of Birds of Chicago teem with earned beauty, but it’s never belabored or overwrought. The pleasures here feel simple, organic, and wondrous: like the easy glee of a child dancing in Mother Nature’s bountiful beauty during summertime. It’s not hard to imagine that being the precise goal of Birds of Chicago, and they execute it in spades on this first “official” (Russell contributed with Nero under the JT Nero name for the majority of the 2011 solo record Mountains / Forests) joining of forces.
Nero has cited The Band as being the single biggest influence upon his music, and that allegiance shines through in Birds of Chicago. The musical union of Russell and Nero breeds harmonies and arrangements that call to mind the very brand of joyous revivalism that Robbie, Rick, Levon, Garth and Richard brought to songs that have endured for generations. The stomp-clap rhythm and pure melody Birds of Chicago bring to a song like “Cannonball” is evocative of the transcendental power The Band brought to harmonies all over classics like Music From Big Pink. You really can’t overstate the kind of mystical clarity Russell and Nero achieve in creating songs that sounds so beautifully organic and heartfelt yet astound time and again. Such an achievement surely requires a level of skill and meticulousness not often found in music today. In a current music environment where popular critics grant the majority of print and acclaim to acts overtly relying on computers and synthesizers while pursuing experimentation and ambient textures, Birds of Chicago thrive on genuine musicianship, melodies, and songs steeped in worldly beauty and communal joy.
Even after Birds of Chicago immediately won my heart with Nero’s astounding ability to craft a stirring couplet rhyming tapeworm and sojourn on “The Moonglow The Tapeworm” (“Yeah, I got that moonglow / I got that tapeworm / And my stomach burns from the tapeworm / Pretty soon I’m a take a sojourn / Yeah, I won’t be here when the colors turn”), the won grace that comes to life through irresistible tunes like “Flying Dreams,” “Sugar Dumplin’” and “Old Calcutta” solidifies the duo’s ability to win over a listener wholeheartedly time and again with top-shelf melodicism and lyrical riches. Couple that with the versatility inherent in gems like the sparse, mesmerizing waltz of “Galaxy Ballroom,” Russell’s colorful prowess amidst the Cajun atmospherics of “Sans Souci,” and the delicately sweet and heartbreaking ballads Russell respectively delivers on “Before She Goes” and “Come Morning,” and the sheer breadth of Birds of Chicago’s powers come become fully realized. Perhaps it’s the closer, the duet “The Wide Sea,” where the powerful marriage of Nero and Russell ingrains itself most deeply into your being. After an album-length string of indelible songs able to turn the most hardhearted cynic into a wide-eyed believer, the gorgeous harmony and gently unfurling composition of “The Wide Sea,” with Russell singing “Please come back to yourself / Come back to me,” has the power to slice open your sternum and tattoo its DNA in the most heavily guarded atrium of your heart.
"The Moonglow The Tapeworm"
Birds of Chicago is a melodic testament to the power of two wildly talented artists spreading their arms to welcome each other and a community into their sublime world, and the twelve songs of their eponymous debut effort just may make you an evangelical believer.
Birds of Chicago’s self-released, self-titled debut is out now.
Justin is a senior contributor for independent music site The Silver Tongue (www.thesilvertongueonline.com), and he is a newly featured contributor to No Depression.
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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