3 out of 5
Label: Vfib Recordings
Produced by: Steve Koester
Absolutely pleasant Americana; also generally nondescript.
There was a surge in the popularity of this style of music in the early 00s, when Two Dark Birds’ Steve Koester released his first album as ‘Koester‘ on David Lowery’s Pitch-A-Tent imprint and Wilco was all the NPR folk would talk about. Lowery’s, despite chasing fame to a degree as Cracker, was also talented at swerving to the left of the spotlight, and the bands on his label often followed suit; despite my pushing Koester’s releases in the music store at which I worked, sales for Wilco and, like, the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack would just keep on a’rollin’. Koester’s broken, pop-tinged folk sound and Steve’s off key vocals would keep evolving, eventually growing up into Two Dark Birds, which is now shaped up with smoother singing and lushly integrated lap steels and wurlitzers, and sleepytime lyrics that are more focused but also a little less out there than the ones Steve’s younger self once delivered.
When Two Dark Birds welcomes in some non-Americana elements, the songs pick up. There’s promise. But more often than not, the group is content to loll in the easy-going and predictable; this is not bad music by any means, and it’s presented skillfully, and earthily produced, it’s just exactly what you think of – or maybe what I think of – when someone mentions modern day folk or Americana. Selling this fully, last track ‘Ash and Sadness‘ was a Koester song; I’d previously described that incarnation of Steve’s work as “broken,” and that very much applied to that track as well. Here, it’s all polished up and pretty. It’s still an affecting song, but it’s missing the edge that made it a delightful bummer on its first go-around.