Pared-down, tangy East Coast Folk with a warm heart and wise head.
One of the pandemic’s many effects on Americana music is there’s been a lot of introspective, person-with-acoustic-guitar-staring-out-from-their-back-porch kind of material getting published recently. After all when you’re stuck at home for so long, ultimately what else is there to do but think? And quite apart from a title as resonant of that domestic perspective as ‘Backyard Birds’, the publicity blurb from US singer-songwriter Lisa Bastoni’s seven-track EP states loud and proud that it was “made out of a desire to continue creating and sharing despite the limitations of the pandemic”.
However, within minutes of starting to listen, and despite there being a fair amount of acoustic guitar sounds running through the EP in general, any temptation to write off the Massachusetts-based artist’s first album in two years as just one more meditative mid-paced pandemic-inspired country-folk production quickly evaporates – because, while it has some of those characteristics for sure, formulaic or unoriginal ‘Backyard Birds’ certainly ain’t.
The opening track ‘Bring It On’ neatly encapsulates a lot of the strengths of ‘Backyard Birds’: its heftiest punch is contained in its lyrics, from the point of view of a lover requesting a possible future partner shed their past emotional baggage for once and for all. There are no histrionics or hints of anything but the usual skeletons in the cupboard in the demand: it’s all refreshingly normal, and straightforward – and all the more powerful for that.
“Don’t bring me old love letters
The books you used to read
Dog eared and underlined
A shrine of memory
Don’t bring me faded photos
Slipping out from plastic sheets
Your smiles telling stories
That are always incomplete
Don’t bring me your old toolbox
From underneath the stairs
There’s nothing to change or fix
And nothing to repair
There’s a whole lot of things
You’ve been carrying too long
If you want to love me
If you feel that strong
Bring it on.”
The same kind of finely tempered, clear-cut emotions and observations – “a shrine of memory” is one especially evocative phrase – run all the way through the EP’s seven tracks. And given the way adjectives ‘you’ and ‘I’ crop up in almost all the songs., it’s clear this is is an album focussing almost exclusively on personal relationships. But there’s enough variety of scenarios and perspectives, not to mention the occasional dab of ultra-dry humour and some excellent, if lowkey, background musical accompaniment from the ultra-versatile Sean Staples (also a co-author on some songs) and the equally proficient Tim Kelly to keep ‘Backyard Birds’ from getting overly monothematic or similar in sound. In ‘Red Rocks’, for example, Bastoni takes a wry look back at what it was to be young and head-over-heels in love with somebody for the first time – and how unappreciative of the bigger picture you might be of it all at the time.
“I never made it to the Grand Canyon
I was somewhere outside Sedona
You picked me up in a pick-up truck
The summer was almost over
We followed the cedars far up the hill
We lay right on the ground
If I couldn’t see the beauty then
I’m sure I’d see it now.”
In fact, the subject of opportunities, missed or missing or urgently in need of taking – and probably appropriately for a ‘pandemic-era album’ – emerges time and again lot of the songs. In ‘Southern Belle’ she urges her prospective other half to “kick the cobwebs, jump the spiders” while ‘If Not Today’ says it all in the title, really, and the song itself glumly warns that: “minutes turn to hours and hours disappear”. One of the most interesting variations on that theme comes in ‘Hidden In The Song’ whereas one musician addressing another, she reflects on how art can be used to communicate furtive or undeclared messages between lovers – and how that’s a kind of two-edged sword.
“If I ever had a secret
Could I keep it to myself?
Would I try to press it close
Would I wait for it to fade?
Wouldn’t I be just like you
Sing the things I couldn’t say.”
One of the best things about all of these songs is that when it describes a complicated or maybe contradictory set of feelings, Bastoni leaves all the individual strands out there without trying to pick them to bits. On ‘Sorrow’s A String’, for example, about revisiting a now-sold family home – “even though I know better” she wryly adds in an aside – one single image “There’s a light inside somewhere about to turn on” instantly captures the idea of life going on in places that may be very familiar, but which we know we can no longer reach.
“I drove by the house even though I know better
It still looks the same as when you were there
They cut down some trees but the barn is still standing
There’s a light inside somewhere about to turn on
When I cry my sorrow’s a string
I want to love you as long as I can
I would fly
If I had wings
How I wish I could see you again.”
The slightly homespun, straightforward feel of these lyrics keeps the music at a healthy distance, too, from the blander blends in the coffee-house folk genre – to which you could argue ‘Backyard Birds’ is a distant relative. On the last song, ‘This is My Love,’ recorded on her I-phone in her kitchen table you can even distantly hear a couple of birds chirruping away from her back garden in unintentional accompaniment. And given the way this album relentlessly sparks instant emotional connections, if you find yourself humming along these immensely powerful but understated, unpretentious songs, too, don’t be at all surprised.