It starts out with distortion, guitar, and a voice. The voice is one you’ve heard before, been hearing for years. The always-ethereal vocal tones of Kelly Smith (nee Kneiser) of Glossary. Then a new voice, one you may have heard before but certainly not like this. The Dirty Birds have come home to roost, or maybe they’ve flown the coop. The members are the same, but the name and dedication are both newly minted. In Todd Farrell’s words: ” …[W]e are a BAND and not just me and some guys.” This EP, the first under the name Benchmarks, is their attempt to do things the right way.
Part of the genesis of the band (though they’ve been playing together long enough for it to perhaps be the Deuteronomy of the band) is undoubtedly Farrell’s semi-official status as Two Cow Garage’s lead guitar. There must be an undeniable hunger for life on the road once you’ve put in two tours with the greatest rock and roll band in America.
Farrell has drawn on the connections he’s made over the years, and the heft they bring to the EP is considerable. Smith’s harmonies bring the same heartbreaking sweetness to “April Fire” as they did to “Your Heart To Haunt”; the song explores a past that seems somehow more distant and closer with each passing day, and does so with impressive depth and driving instrumentation. The drummer, Jack Whitis, provides keys that give a melodic counterpoint to the complex guitar work. This band is too good to be named The Dirty Birds.
Micah Schnabel, of Two Cow Garage if the name isn’t familiar to you already, contributes a verse to the title track, “American Night”, and his almost-manic vulnerability brings clarity to Farrell’s songwriting, their duet more Butch and Sundance than Frankie and Dino. It wouldn’t be a Farrell record without another shot at a previously-released song. The melancholy “Liner Notes” of All Our Heroes Live In Vans is supplanted by a new version, chock full of crashing symbols and heavy metal guitar riffs. Whereas the acoustic arrangement of the song seemed to be asking a question, the full-band version makes a definite statement.
“Just Fine” seems to be wrapping up loose ends from older albums, and feels like the true end of the record. The book is being closed on old flames and old grudges and it’s time for new beginnings. Of course, it wouldn’t be Farrell without a sobering look at what the future could bring…or the desire to stride towards that future, regardless. The coda is “Paper Napkins”, a somber reflection on non-traditional adulthood and how taxing constant motion can be.
Though I seem to be paying special attention to Farrell’s songwriting, both musically and technically this is the band’s most impressive work to date. You can tell that the pieces were arranged, were collaborations, and not just several musicians trying to follow the instructions of a peer. Each of these men are skilled musicians and, at this point, Nashville old hands. Eli Rhodes (an impressive songsmith in his own right) mastered the album, Farrell and Whitis produced and engineered it. ‘Goose’ Rewinski, in addition to energetic bass playing, undoubtedly provided apt sports metaphors throughout the recording process (you can find some of his talented sportswriting here).
When four guys sit down and talk about starting a band, it’s guys like this who have the best odds. They’ve been around the block, played for pay and played for love, and they are certainly no longer any spring chickens. But that’s alright; summer’s just around the corner. This truly is a debut effort, and it’s Essential Listening.