I worked late then raced home only to watch my beloved Rodger Federer lose a five-setter in the quarter finals at Wimbledon. So yeah, not the greatest day.
Disc 1157 is… Real Midnight
Artist: Birds of Chicago
Year of Release: 2015
What’s up with the Cover? Allison Russell looking very artsy – like she’s posing for a painting or maybe on the verge of breaking into a contemporary dance routine. Actually, she’ll probably sing. That’s totally her thing.
How I Came To Know It: I read an article about them in a music magazine and decided to check them out. I liked what I heard, obviously.
How It Stacks Up: Apparently they have a new record out this year so I’m looking forward to checking that out, but for now I have just two Birds of Chicago albums. I like them both, but I’m going to give “Real Midnight” the edge.
Ratings: 4 stars
Sometimes a great voice just will not be denied, and that’s the case with Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago. It helps to have a great supporting cast, and on “Real Midnight” she has some of the best. The record has all the talent of a collection of top flight session musicians, but the cohesiveness and ease of a bunch of friends.
Fellow vocalist and guitar player JT Nero writes all the songs on the album and his many influences are on full display. The record is at its core folk music in its arrangements, but it is so infused with southern soul and gospel that the lines blur away to nothing. This is basically a bunch of musicians who love music in all its forms, and can play it any way you want it.
JT Nero also has a solid singing voice, and on “Wild Horses” and “Time and Times” he puts his high rasp on display. He won’t blow you away, but he’s got a pretty tone and on both those tracks (and more besides) and he knows the real secret is tucking in behind the power that is Allison Russell.
Russell is a revelation. I’ve heard the title track a ton of times (there is a live clip of it on Youtube that is a go-to for me when I need an emotional lift). Every time I hear it, it suffuses my soul with joy. Lyrically these aren’t terribly rich songs (for that, read my previous review of Anna Tivel) but the melodies are pretty and serve as a showcase for Russell’s talent.
“Real Midnight” (the song) has a slow build, climbing in and out of harmony loose harmonies but when Russell takes the wheel solo and sings:
“Kiss my shoulders, kiss my eyes
Don’t make me feel bad
Why would you do that – why….”
You think your heart is going to break. But then, just as she’s leaving you hanging with that desperate “why…” the chorus leaps in for the rescue with an inspirational “lift me up! Lift me up!” that makes you think you’re going to soar right off your seat.
“Estrella Goodbye” has a celebratory country pop filled with gospel soul. It felt like the spirit of Rhiannon Giddens was infusing it with extra power – no wait! That is Rhiannon Giddens. As if this record didn’t already have a surfeit of talent – getting Rhiannon to pitch in as a guest vocalist just feels like cheating. (Giddens also drops some dope fiddle licks on “Time and Times”).
The songs put emotion first, but despite lyrics that are generally fairly obvious in places the delivery is so perfect, and the playing so divine you don’t mind that you’ve heard it before.
Like their previous record, Birds of Chicago partially funded “Real Midnight” through Kickstarter, and key donors are thanked prominently in the CD case. That was a nice touch. It just feels right that a bunch of talented people coming together to make great music should be backed by a bunch of people who like hearing it. I encourage you to do your part and go buy a copy.
Best tracks: Dim Star of the Pillisades, Remember Wild Horses, Estrella Goodbye, Real Midnight, Time and Times, Pelicans