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Make no mistake: No Bird Sing play hip hop. They just won't be kick-starting any dance parties in the near future. More Black Keys than Kanye, more prog rock than bump 'n' grind, the trio's dark, gritty sound is drenched in distortion and littered with dynamic shifts. But in their own, forward-thinking fashion, No Bird Sing hearken straight back to the Golden Age of Rap, when all you needed was a drum beat, a sample, and an MC.
"If you took away the vocals, you'd never know it was hip hop," admits drummer Graham O'Brien. He is slouched in a back corner at the Muddy Pig, a stocking cap pulled down over his brow. "We're just investigating the relationship between hip hop and other genres—taking the spoken, rhythmic word and putting it in other places."
Much as the music's stark, dissonant exterior rewards close listening, the low-pitched, slightly mumbled raps of frontman Eric Blair (known offstage as Joe Horton) are too cerebral and complex for easy consumption. But while he dispenses with the braggadocio that is such an integral part of hip-hop culture, his words have the fire and conviction of Gil Scott-Heron or Grandmaster Flash—the sort of fire that you don't see very often in Minnesota rappers. On Theft of the Commons, No Bird Sing's new album, Blair tightens up his philosophical, often abstract musings into a more focused attack, centering specifically on the concept of the "common goods."
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"People have claimed false ownership of those things over the years and it's getting worse and worse and worse. Like water's being privatized and all these resources are being stripped away from people they belong to and it's being sold back to them," he explains. Blair's demeanor in conversation strikes a noticeable contrast to his presence as a performer, as he is easy-going and self-deprecating. His large, toothy grin is an almost constant presence. "I've always been aware of that concept, but I got to the point that I was so pissed off about it that I didn't have anything else to do with it but write about it."
The songs on Theft bristle with that frustration, their characters' actions distilled to a series of deceptions, their moods colored by an overhanging sense of mistrust. O'Brien and guitarist Robert Mulrennan weave the music deftly around Blair's vocals, the three band members playing intuitively off one another while locking into a lean, purposeful groove. The assuredness of the performances should come as little surprise, though: After featuring a number of guest spots on their self-titled debut, the band cut this album inside a barn in Buffalo, Minnesota, placing an emphasis on capturing a live atmosphere with minimal overdubs.
One song, "All of Her Heart," was cut separate from the others, and it carries a distinctively personal tone. It was written while Blair was on a trip to the North Shore only days after the death of Michael "Eyedea" Larsen, who was a close friend of all three band members.
"I had this experience where I was sitting on a log and it was kind of stormy and the waves in Lake Superior were three or four feet high," Blair recalls with a slow nod of his head, his voice shaking slightly at the memory. "It was honestly as divine of an experience as I've ever had in my life, and I felt like he was there. Not in some pseudo-spiritual, metaphysical way, but I felt like I felt when I was hanging out with him."
Blair says his biggest regret about the new album is that Larsen never heard the finished product, but "All of Her Heart" (the title a play on one of Larsen's pseudonyms) proves a fitting tribute. Deliberately styled after Carbon Carousel's music, the song's misty, ethereal air and speak-sing vocals capture Larsen's character and music with understated beauty and sensitivity.
One of the things that spurs on the three members of No Bird Sing is the way they thrive on pushing each other outside their comfort zones, so their shared love of improvisation is crucial to the band's chemistry. It's significant, then, that Larsen played a major role in Blair's development as a freestyler, so Blair's thoughts on the matter speak not only to the principles of the band but also serve as further testament to Larsen's legacy.
"[Freestyling] does wonderful things for your creativity. It kills that part that keeps you from expressing yourself, and [Larsen] was just so embracing of that naked feeling that I got addicted to it," he says. "But that's what creativity is. It's coming to this point where you don't know what you're doing and having to figure out what to do. The second you're not doing that, you're just rehashing old shit."
NO BIRD SING play a CD-release party with Kill the Vultures and Kristoff Krane on FRIDAY, APRIL 29, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674