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Sweet bird song 

Bowerbirds' environmental aestheticism

click to enlarge In the trees: Beth Tacular and Phil Moore of Bowerbirds - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

It's a Thursday night on Martin Street in downtown Raleigh in the dimly lit den of Alibi Bar, directly below the city's construction carnival. Nervously, a guy and a girl flit about one end of the room, plugging in microphones and guitars, asking their assembled friends if everything sounds right. It does.

They play six songs, the girl--short, fair skin, dark hair--bending back beneath the weight of a bass drum hanging from her shoulders, marching-band style. When she's not playing it, she's squeezing chords from an accordion. Doing either, she's still singing. The guy--slightly taller, nearly as skinny, a scrim of hair across his face--finger plucks an acoustic guitar and rocks uneasily toward the microphone. He plays a high-hat drum with his right foot. Mistakes are made, but both just smile--nervously at the crowd, warmly at each other.

This is Bowerbirds: They are a couple. Cynics will despise them. It's just too cute, this fetching couple singing songs about inspiration through, envelopment in and adulation of nature, songs about animals and trees and bird songs. And what about that name? Taken from the general taxon of birds whose majestic mating song is unique among all other birds and who ornately decorates its own bower to attract a mate, right? Do they suppose they're attracting the world, one song at a time?

But that's the thing about cynics: They shade their eyes from beauty they can no longer appreciate. In fact, there's nothing cute about Bowerbirds, the duo of Phil Moore and Beth Tacular, two Raleigh kids who have been dating for two years now. It's just real: Any cuteness complex is all on the perceiver's end. They are just a couple--that is, two people that started playing music together because they were in love and wanted to play music together. The fact that it works well enough for public performance and for a steadily assembling group of fans is only a coincidental corollary.

But even cynics deserve leeway: There is reason to suspect artifice in this band called Bowerbirds. After all, it's all so perfect--the relationship, the dynamic, the songs. It's too good to be this pure.

Moore's voice is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, twisting and bending each line into shape through irregular syllables and unsuspected rhythms. It's been that way at least since his last band, Ticonderoga. In that trio, his songs could be expected to do the unexpected, to start with a new-folk lift before invariably dropping through several stark turns. In retrospect, those songs were but extensions of his voice. But Tacular does what, hitherto, seemed impossible, matching Moore's cadence and bands, as if his voice's litheness were inherently suited for harmonizing. It is not.

What's more is the subject matter: "But it takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous Earth/ We're only human/ This at least we've learned," they sing together for the end of "In Our Talons," a percussive folk beauty, Moore and Tacular turning a bird song--"And the warbler sings, 'deet-deet-deet deet-deet-deet deet-deet'"--into an incensed war cry against encroaching humanity. It's like some post-hippie dream, a challenging folk music exercise about naturalistic preservation, sincerely proclaimed in a city where greenspace hasn't exactly been the prerogative. It's risky.

click to enlarge "We have kind of turned into the straight-up same creature." Phil Moore - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS

But the back story matches wits: Moore and Tacular (then, Beth Salmon; she legally adopted her artist name last year) met while working at Whole Foods. Moore was a musician new to town: He had arrived with Mark Paulson, his best friend since seventh grade back in Grinnell, Iowa. Here, they rejoined their other best friend and longtime bandmate, Wes Phillips, to form Ticonderoga. Tacular was an emerging visual artist and Web designer. She had lived in Raleigh since she was 9 months old. They started dating and moved in together.

Ticonderoga gained momentum, becoming one of the most noteworthy bands in Raleigh for their inventive sound and for releasing a new record--either an LP or EP--at every show. Fifty-four Forty or Fight!, a Michigan-based independent label, took notice and asked the band to sign a record deal. In a seven-month span in 2005, Ticonderoga released two full-length albums and was deep into preparation for the next one.

Moore wasn't around for the recording of most of the second album, though. Instead, he and Tacular were in South Carolina, an hour's drive away from the nearest town, living in a cabin by themselves. Moore, a biology alumnus at Grinnell College, had landed a job watching the Swainson's warbler through a program at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. He would spend all day in the woods, tracking birds while Tacular stayed back home, painting and making her own trips into the woods with their black Lab, Olive.

Moore's involvement in nature was piqued, and his songwriting began to reflect it. He began writing for solo performance, and the songs started tackling natural images as defiled by humans. Tacular's art began to deal more with nature, too. A syn-aesthetic approach began to emerge.

"We have kind of turned into the straight-up same creature. Her art used to be more political, but now it's environmentally slanted. And I have a lot of input there now with her," Moore says.

After Moore returned in the fall, Ticonderoga toured off of the second LP with Chapel Hill's The Physics of Meaning. In Baton Rouge, things spun out of control for the trio. Tempers flared and personal conflicts were unveiled. Moore got on a bus bound for Raleigh; Phillips and Paulson finished the tour, with Daniel Hart from The Physics of Meaning filling in for some songs each set. Phillips moved to Iowa when it was over, and he hasn't been back yet.

"It was sad. I loved that band, and it was like a relationship breaking up, but they've maintained a lot of those friendships," says Tacular. "They love each other."

Moore took it as a cue to finally play his songs by himself. He was somewhat dissatisfied with the way his own songs sounded after being interpreted by Ticonderoga. He penned "The Ticonderoga," a response to the problems that ultimately consumed the band, and set out on his own. That was an exception to the theme of the other tracks, though, otherwise devoted to images of nature, their beauty and the peril he saw there.

But Moore wasn't going to go solo so easily. Tacular had borrowed an accordion from Philips and had been toying with it. One day, she decided to get serious.

"I took it into a closet where I wouldn't make a lot of noise, and it was totally dark. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. He said maybe I could play with him," says Tacular, in New York for a week with a friend. "I'd never been a singer, so he taught me how to hear and sing. He's the most encouraging person I know."

Tacular joined Moore for the first Bowerbirds show at Bickett Gallery in February. With his encouragement, she's developed steadily. She's now writing her own accordion arrangements (they now have nearly a dozen songs complete), and her influence can be seen on every track. Along with their artistic cooperation, Moore learned HTML to help Tacular with her freelance Web design business.

Another local band with similar of-necessity origins, The Rosebuds, have taken Bowerbirds under their wings, giving the duo the opening spot at their sold-out Cat's Cradle show last month. The Rosebuds had long been advocates of Ticonderoga, so the relationship seemed natural.

The day before that show, Paulson--who is just now beginning to perform again as Ticonderoga--recorded Bowerbirds' six-song debut album. That debut, Danger at Sea, sounds like someone spent months making it, due largely to the quality of the songs and to Paulson's experience making records. Paulson and Moore may tour several European festivals (possibly with Rosebud Ivan Howard, whose solo debut Paulson will be finishing in the next three weeks) as Ticonderoga.

But, at this point, everyone involved is looking to take things more deliberately. Moore worried that Ticonderoga bit the label hook too quickly, and that simply provided pressures they couldn't match. Bowerbirds are not looking for the encumbrance of a label or a booking agent: This summer, they're going to tour the country in their car, probably busking for money on street corners. They have applied for a residency at a nature program for artists in Oregon.

"We had all this fun in Ticonderoga, and then all of a sudden there was pressure and it became a headache," says Moore. "So, the idea with Bowerbirds is to try not to listen to the inside perception of the outside voices of what we're doing. We don't want to worry about record sales or tours. We want it to be fun again."

That's a lesson for the cynics, no doubt.

Bowerbirds play with DeYarmond Edison and Bellafea at Kings on Friday, May 5 at 10 p.m.

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