Whether you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, or believe the world was made by an omniscient deity in seven days, there are a lot of myths about creation. Nowhere is this more evident than in rock and roll. As easy as it may be to romanticize the lives of Elliott Smith, Tim Buckley, and Kurt Cobain, the reality is that a musician need not live in constant state of emotional extremes, wrestling with demons while working in a dimly lit, fifth-floor walkup, to forge songs imbued with emotional resonance. Au contraire. A true talent can respond to almost any environment or circumstances. Want proof? Take a listen to Songs for the New, the sophomore full-length from Two Dark Birds.
TDB front man Steve Koester is no stranger to the realms of twilights and lowlifes. "I look back at the first Two Dark Birds album, and my solo records, and I hear the seduction of the dark side, the pull of oblivion," he admits. Flashes of that world can still be glimpsed on Songs for the New; that's not Coca-Cola they're drinking around the bonfire in "Lake Algonquin," nor did the narrator of "Pie Eyed" blacken both his eyes by walking into a door. But the overarching themes uniting Songs for the New literally sprang from a different place: Koester moved from the confines of New York City, where he'd lived for over a decade, to Pakatakan Mountain in the Catskills.
Part of the impetus to relocate was a reaction against the shadowy impulses that shape those aforementioned rock and roll myths. "I was feeling very fried, like I'd reached the end of something. I was unhealthy: Mentally, physically, spiritually." On a much brighter note, Koester and his wife had welcomed the arrival of their first child. "So we just headed for the hills." The combination of these two forcesa change of zip code and becoming a parentyielded new avenues of inspiration. "This whole album is, in a sense, about being born or being reborn," he observes, wary of sounding too corny. "I spend a lot of time in the big hemlock forests on our mountain, and that's reawakened me to nature. I spend a lot of time with my little girl, and that's reawakened me to love and touch and kindness, all those elemental things. It's an old story, really, but a new one to me."
The album opens with one of its strongest evocations of that natural world, "Closer to Water," a song animated by a cascading chorus and dancing string parts that underscores Koester's ability to fashion a catchy melody without resorting to the rudiments of rote Top 40 fare. "I was out on the mountain in springtime and watching how water comes down the mountain," he recalls. "Rain into stream, stream into pond, pond into river, and so on. It is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes shapes or vessels." He sat down and hammered out a rough version quickly, then added and subtracted bits until it was just right. Much of the album was written in similar bursts of feverish inspiration during his first year on Pakatakan: "Black Blessed Night," "Comfort," "Song for the New," "Ill Wind Again." "After I realized where this was all headed, I decided I wanted to put together a series of songs about family that was not schmaltzy or overly sentimental, but also not bleak or hostile." Starting a family induced its share of emotional turmoil, but not of the solipsistic, depressed-teenager variety. "I wanted to present the dark and the light, the trials and the joys." Towards achieving that balance, Songs for the New includes some of the most radiant offerings in Koester's catalog, most notably "Song for Clementine," which simply begs to be heard while cruising down a highway carefree on a warm summer's night.
The album's overall sound is much fuller and more vibrant than its self-titled 2008 predecessor, too. Less Neil Young's On The Beach, more energetic and multi-hued. "It's not Pet Sounds, but it might be as close as we'll get to that sort of record." There are string arrangements courtesy of Chris Carmichael, who took Koester's original ideasincluding his affinity for Robert Kirby's work with Nick Drakeand realized them in his own splendid fashion. Jonathan Powell's horn parts sometimes sprang from snippets keyboard player Benjamin Wildenhaus had tried out in band practice, other times from spontaneous improvisation. "This album was very much a band effort," Koester reiterates. "Even though I write the songs, we all work together in arranging and recording." The album was tracked in the studios of lap-steel player Don Piper and drummer Jason Mills, who also shares production credits with Koester.
Koester wanted the album to reflect not just the natural beauty of the Catskills, but its musical history, too: The Band and Bob Dylan, Van Morrison's early solo work and Karen Dalton's 1971 cult classic In My Own Time. "I feel an affinity for all those artists because even though they use roots and country elements, they are coming from a very different, more urban, more complex place musically. It's roots music, but through a filter." Growing up, albums like R.E.M.'s Reckoning, the second Meat Puppets full-length, and the Violent Femmes' Hallowed Ground were touchstones for Koester, and Songs for the New is an extension of that aesthetic, a distinctly American music that defies easy categorization. Certainly, that's how Two Dark Birds discuss their own music; they're just as likely to reference Anthony Braxton or Fleetwood Mac at band practice as they are Waylon Jennings. Categories are for marketing teams. "Either the music connects to you or it doesn't."
Songs for the New connects, and powerfully so, largely by virtue of its humble origins and simple intent. "A lot of music, especially indie rock, seems to be saying, 'I'm so much cooler than you,'" concludes Koester. "We want to do something that exists outside of that. My hope is that these songs touch on something deep-rooted and universal. They definitely come from a specific place, but you don't have to live in the mountains, or have a kid or whatever, to understand them.