I discovered Darlingside about three years ago, and fell instantly in love with their sound. From their first EP, I recognized a clarity of expression and unity of voice which I have seldom found in similar folk groups. They take their name from their own creative process: letting go of their own personal (darling) ideas and subjecting them to the group dynamic. This concept of “darling-cide” (think “pesticide” or “fratricide”) allows a single member’s idea to be strengthened by the perspectives of the rest of the group. This unity in writing continues throughout the other aspects of the band’s life: they all graduated from the same university, they share a roof in Massachusetts, and they share a mic in their live shows.
Darlingside’s latest album, “Birds Say,” is perhaps the most unified the group has ever been. Rarely does a single voice carry the brunt of a melody or a particular instrument dominate the texture. Yet on these occasions when a cello solo breaks out or a mandolin lick makes your foot start to move, Darlingside’s true glory shines through. The harrowing process of natural selection that the band utilizes in songwriting gives way to the sublime and cohesive beauty of their sound and lyrics.
Interestingly, “Birds Say” is an album almost entirely without standard percussion instruments. Aside from the occasional kick-drum, rhythmic figures are most often carried by melodic instruments. Percussive use of instruments almost makes me forget that there are very few drums or cymbals used in this record—a great testament to the band’s musicianship. Instruments switch from melody to rhythm to harmony with tact and fluidity. On a technical level, “Birds Say” is quite excellent, but it never shows off.
The theme of unity is carried into the very way the band blends different tones and textures. Rich textures provide a backdrop for the lyrics and melodies. Although the album is predominantly acoustic, electric guitars and electronic noises sometimes bubble through to the front of the mix. These electric sound effects give songs like “Volcano Sky” their ethereal, spiritual feeling, and their use is never tactless or detrimental to the acoustic sounds. Indeed, in listening to this album I almost forgot the differentiation between acoustic and electric sound—something I rarely do. “Birds Say” is by no means a “crossover” album, yet the band certainly ventures into unexplored sonic territory, alluding to post-rock, brit-pop, country, classical, and other avenues. The band’s main course is certainly neo-folk, yet their appetizers are equally unique and delicious.
Many Americana acts fall flat on either lyrics or accompaniment, sacrificing lyrical coherence for musical competence or vice versa. Fortunately, Darlingside succeeds on both sides. Lyrically, this album is exuberant and compelling. The title track is about perspective, exploring the frequent disconnect between how people see and understand the world differently. It is a short, tight song with only a few lines, the crux being,
Don’t know if the colors look the same to you
Maybe you see white the way that I see blue
Birds don’t know what you say, birds don’t know what you
Might as well just say whatever comes to you.
In a sense, this album is a collage of perspectives and each song a postcard. Of all the songs, “She’s All Around” has stuck with me the most, lyrically. It drips with metaphor and has a rainy-day sort of mood which I have always been partial to. It is a celebration of the evergreen and its ultimate symbolism for eternity.
Time is an important motif in the album: “The Ancestor” imagines the lives of future generations, “Go Back” (somewhat obviously) speaks about the tension between memory and forward motion, and “Do You Ever Live?” explores the cyclical nature of time and choice. The nostalgia of “Clay and Cast Iron” and the exuberance of “White Horses” brings the perspective of childhood and growing up. Although both songs convey completely different moods, they have an earnestness that reminds me of the games I used to play as a kid and the many memories I gathered during that time. “Volcano Sky” and “The God of Loss” are both bittersweet and utterly beautiful tunes (and the music video for “The God of Loss,” I might add, is in a fantastic light-box style). Overall, the album’s lyricism has great depth without ever becoming pretentious, and I get a feeling of carefree joy in songs like “Harrison Ford” and “My Gal, My Guy.”
Darlingside is a smart group and they certainly know it. But though they are quirky and witty (and despite the fact that they all graduated from an Ivy League institution), they are never in-your-face. Their songs are real and human, and every member of the group is an excellent musician. They have managed to make something that has deeply affected me, and, if I’ve succeeded at being at all convincing, other people.
Let this album take you into a different part of reality for 46 minutes and return you feeling refreshed. Make no mistake, there is no escapism here, as every song is soaked in earth and rooted in folk; yet there is something here that lifts you from the mundane into the realm of the talking birds, the rivers of Chicago and Appalachia, and a crimson-yellow sun, before bringing you softly back.
(Featured photo: cover art for “Birds Say” by Darlingside)
Peter Donnelly is currently studying music composition at Belmont University in Nashville (he can’t think of a better place for a musician; there’s so much more than country), and he plays the cello and piano. He hopes to one day score for films, but he’ll take virtually any gig until he gets there. When he’s not obsessing over music in some form, he enjoys reading and writing.