Welcome to Boombox Blitz, an artist spotlight series showcasing overlooked singers, songwriters and musicians who are quietly taking over the world.
Birds of Chicago are a pack of soul movers who delight in rhythm and blues, gospel and country. Allison Russell and JT Nero both possess unshakably grainy and intricate voices, and they trade of lead throughout much of their work. Early 2016, they issued their second studio record, the timely and moving Real Midnight–on the title cut, they observe, rather prophetically: “real wolves at your door / with blood on their tongues / Now what you gonna do / With your days left in the sun.” They slice right to the truth, often kissing and caressing the imagery with promptness and tough love, and in a world of fake news and a malevolent presence in the free world, it is exactly what we need.
The record is wonderfully produced by industry stalwart Joe Henry, who has crafted albums from Cheryl Wright (I am the Rain) and Bonnie Raitt (Dig in Deep) to Hayes Carll (Lovers and Leavers), Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (The Traveling Kind), and the Carolina Chocolate Drops (Genuine Negro Jig). The production on Real Midnight breathes unapologetically, often fluttering carelessly on the wind. But there’s always a heaviness to it, like a 10-ton barbell has been strapped to its feet and thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. “I had a dream we were dying, we were falling, falling not flying,” Russell reflects on “Sparrow,” a harrowing meditation on death and the fleeting nature of life. “I’m a sparrow I do not fear the falcon. Feel our words grow like a secret garden.”
In addition to gifting the supple and syrupy vocals, Russell also plays clarinet, banjo, ukulele and guitar, and Nero often takes up percussion and guitar, when necessary. What the two create is a rich, earthy and dynamically-entrancing collection, rooted in the heart and soul of country music: which has always had a love affair with gospel, blues and rock, its three cousins who frequently entangle, splinter off and reunite later on, worse for wear. From that, Russell and Nero–whose previous experiences include roles in Po’ Girl and JT and the Clouds, respectively–were destined to form in 2012. At the time, Nero was simply penning songs for Russell, who continues as Birds of Chicago’s primary interpreter. Their chemistry is palpable on record, and Russell’s skills are sublime, particularly on such cuts as “Dim Star of the Palisades,” “Barley” and “The Good Fight.”
Depending on any given project, the band often balloons to include a bevy of players. Those include Chris Merrill (on electric and acoustic bass), Joel Schwartz (on electric guitar), Nick Chambers (on drums, percussion and ukulele), Drew Lindsay (on keys and accordion), Dan Abu-Absi (on electric guitar, mandolin and percussion), Michelle McGrath (on guitar), Awna Teixeira (on accordion, banjo, ukulele, guitar and harmonica), Chris Neal (on sax and organ), Mikey Lightning (on drums), Bart de Win (on keys and accordion), Joe Faulhaber (on electric guitar), and Will Waghorn (on drums).
“We write it to save ourselves,” Nero once said in a press statement. “And we don’t shrink from the idea that it can ‘save’ other people. We don’t mean that in a religious sense. We are a band full of severely lapsed Lutherans, accidental Buddhists, vaguely hopeful whatevers. I just believe, on a gut level, that words and music together heal and transform like nothing else in this life.” Whether you are disastrously wounded or seemingly well put together, the album’s aching context can mend your brokenness or deconstruct your resistance to feel anything–and in time, you’ll be able to resolve your own demons or come to understand someone else’s.
Real Midnight is out now on iTunes, and you can spin it below, via Spotify:
Top photo credit: Natalie Ginele Miller