By Jack Spencer
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Combining their total years playing together and apart, National Bird's Dan Wenz and Casey Nelson have been in the local music trenches for more than two decades. During that time they had seemingly found their niche and locked in on it, singing and playing guitar or bass in service of knotty and complex indie-rock tunes across a number of different projects, including End Transmission, the Tide, and, most notably, Tin Horns. When last group fizzled out unexpectedly in 2007, however, the pair took stock of their past musical output and set sail in a new direction with an unexpected soft-pop beacon as their guide: Hall & Oates.
"In between bands, Dan and I had a weird side project called Hall of Notes, which was a Hall & Oates cover band," recalls Nelson, with a grin wide enough that I initially think he's putting me on. "We re-imagined their hit songs while keeping the structure pretty much the same. We would typically learn the song and record it in a half-hour span. I noticed when we were learning all those songs that all of the Hall & Oates hits are structured exactly the same way to a T—and they all work! It really made me think about focusing on getting the point across more effectively in our own songs."
National Bird's new EP, The Rhythm of Our Science, isn't exactly Private Eyes, but it does mark a welcome move into streamlined pop terrain after a decade spent largely avoiding traditional verse-chorus-verse strong structures (and for the record, Nelson wasn't kidding, and I've got the mp3 demo of "Man Eater" to prove it). Lead single "In Summer" is a sinewy slab of sweltering and sinister pop-rock, with a choral guitar hook a mile wide that Spoon would be proud to call their own. "Physical Fitness" chugs along with lock-step concision, bowling over the listener with barbed-wire riffage and exiting stage right in a shade over two and a half minutes.
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"At one point all of our songs used to be averaging over five minutes in length," recalls Wenz. "This time around we wanted a more focused vision; I was ready to try out more of a pop formula and actually write the kind of song that might fit in the background of a TV show. We'll always have our share of songs with crazy time signatures but it's also nice to get to the point a bit faster."
At the same time that Wenz and Nelson were reigning in their sound, Nelson decided to push his lyrics further out—way out. While Wenz's tunes on The Rhythm of Our Science are grounded takes on summer living, dissolving relationships ("You're a Liar"), and the struggle of trying to make a living in music ("Poor Rock & Roll"), Nelson has chosen to channel his inner Isaac Asimov, spinning tales of intergalactic travel ("Fixin' It") and fleeing from supernatural dangers ("Physical Fitness").
Nelson doesn't plan on bringing his songwriting back down to Earth anytime soon. "Up until this band I was always embarrassed by whatever lyrics I tried to write," Nelson readily offers. "They were just awful, like the scribbling of some little kid in junior high. I was ashamed of them. When I started writing these new songs for National Bird I decided to completely change my approach and not make them really have anything to do with my life and just write science-fiction stories instead. That's pretty much all I do now—write songs about monsters and the apocalypse and time travel."
With such disparate lyrical styles and singing voices—Wenz favors a classic croon reminiscent of Richard Swift, Nelson a clipped deadpan—it's a testament to the personal bond between the two that they've been able to make their musical talents gel so effectively into a coherent whole.
"It helps when you're a huge fan of the person you're playing with and love the kind of music they make," explains Wenz of their mutual ease in co-fronting the quintet that also features guitarist Kris Johnson, drummer Ryan Otte, and Wenz's sister July Palm on bass. "There's never really been any talk about power sharing."
"We lived together for a long time," adds Nelson "And we've been really close for a number of years now, so that's definitely a part of it. I'm a fan of his, and I trust his musical ideas so it just works out. I don't know exactly how it works but I purposely don't spend too much time thinking about it because I don't want to jinx it."
NATIONAL BIRD play an EP-release show with BNLX and Wizards Are Real on FRIDAY, AUGUST 6, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486