Northern Transmissions review of 'Rare Birds' by Jonathan Wilson


Rare Birds

Jonathan Wilson

Good artists borrow great artists steal. Jonathan Wilson’s brilliance as a songwriter is truly only matched by his clever ability to find a familiar sound to match it with. Though he has such a cutting lyricism and knack for melodies, he often filters this through tones of about 50 other classic artists that came before him. While Wilson really does a lot with the ideas he pulls from, he does struggle multiple times to really create his own voice among it all.

Through unsettling tumbles of drums, the album falls into the psychedelic wash of “Trafalgar Square” along with Latin guitars and Middle Eastern tones to the strings. After setting the stage, Wilson moves along with an energy equal parts T. Rex and Pink Floyd to make a bouncy but dreamy rock sound. If you ever wonder what the touching piano writing of James Blunt’s Back To Bedlam would sound like interpreted by Roger Waters, “Me” captures these two beauties wonderfully. Through his lush harmonies and pointed instrumentation, Wilson brings it all together.

While “Over The Midnight” starts with the energy and timbre of Twin Peaks main theme, it gains a rush of synths that carry a much more sprawling energy through the track. Unfortunately despite the mighty tone set along the track, it does take its time far too much and ends up a little bloated. Glowing with angelic themes and country twang, “There’s A Light” has a deep spiritual quality to its sound. Like George Harrison racing through the stars, the track brings its bluesy rock to another plane to create something new.

Given the album’s repeated lack of tightening up, a track like “Sunset Blvd” can feel a little slow at times, but it’s one to stick it out for. Falling bell riffs really open up the song’s second half and the intimacy you get at the song’s outset is truly touching. The brutal guitars of “Rare Birds” burn like a furious fire, and make the song instantly intriguing. The verses actually add even more mystery to the sound to push the song further, although the dreamy country tones of the bridges may prove a little more divisive in the end.

“49 Hairflips” jumps right into a Father John Misty level of social commentary which feels rather jarring halfway through the record, as fun as it makes the writing. Through the song’s neon harmonies and chords, it holds a sense of space that make it easy to forget how out of left field it can feel. Wilson escapes the Kinks comparison quickly with his bizarre electronic elements on “Miriam Montague.” Thanks to his fearless ability to launch his songs into different directions on the fly, the track is surprisingly unpredictable despite its familiar footing.

The electrified strings of “Loving You” come as something totally foreign and perhaps afro-futuristic. Though the base of the track is a hazy wonder to hear, the writing doesn’t warrant its eight-minute meditation on it. “Living With Myself” feels utterly edgeless, letting all the soul putter out of the song like 80’s tracks that just haven’t aged well for the same reasons. Unfortunately because of this, the extended writing also undermines any of the fun hooks that lie in the middle of the track.

“Hard To Get Over” packs a lot more punch in its striking percussion and inspiring synth lines, and sets a sprawling energy in its hooks. After a dead delivery before, Wilson rises triumphant on the track to really create a track that feels more like a rallying cry. Despite the depth Wilson brings to “Hi Ho To Righteous” the song’s six-minute country bounce is utterly unnecessary until he starts to subvert it in the finale. There’s an epic heft to “Mulholland Queen” that really matches the devastating performance Wilson puts behind the microphone.

Words by Owen Maxwell


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