Supergroups have been one constant of the past forty years of popular music. Having past success with their own respective projects, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played their second ever gig to the million-odd filthy hippies at Woodstock and a new style of pop group was formed. Record company executives get giddy with excitement of the cross-marketing possibilities, and the artists get to have some fun with friends while producing what is perhaps the definition of vanity music.
In the late-80s George Harrison’s record company wanted him to record a B-sides for “This Is Love”. Harrison called up friends Roy Orbison and producer Jeff Lynne, later finding themselves at Bob Dylan’s home studio with Tom Petty. The end product that the record company thought was too good for a B-Side. And so the Traveling Wilburys were born, creating with it a new style of supergroup where it’s less about the personalities and more about the music that is at the core of the project.
In recent years the supergroup has been largely confined to heavier rock; it seems year there’s always a new Dave Grohl or Jack White led group of reasonably known musicians putting out albums and touring the world. Then there was Ben Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee joining forces for a short but critically acclaimed Australian tour as The Bens, yielding just one EP.
And so in 2010 a bunch of Australian pop-acoustic-rock musicians get together and take a crack at it. Basement Birds are Josh Pyke, Kevin Mitchell (Bob Evans/Jebediah), Steve Parkin and Kav Temperley (Eskimo Joe), riding a wave of recent popularity and success to this side-project. And not unlike the decidedly experimental approach of 2009′s amalgamation of alt-rock folkies Connor Oberst, Mike Mogis, M.Ward and Jim James as the Monsters of Folk, Basement Birds aren’t afraid to broaden their horizons and step outside of their carefully crafted musical personas.
The album feels like it gets off to a cautious start with Waiting For You, the first single of the album, easing the listener into the album with a “Hey guys it’s us! We’re singing together but you’ll still like it!” sensibility to it. The quirky alt-bluegrass (now there’s a genre that needs to exist!) Bus Stop quickly sets things straight, with vocal contributions by Julia Stone, and by track three, Not The One (the second single) they find a rhythm that carries through the rest of the album.
All in all Basement Birds is a fun album. The listener Consciously playing to each member’s strengths, you’ll of course find Mitchell’s trademark nasal voice, Temperley’s soulful expression and Pyke’s arpeggio singing style, but at the same time find much more than that. The addition of Lucky Oceans on pedal steel, a “super” in his own right as perhaps the most internationally known of the group, adds a texture to the album that helps separate it from the cannon of the individual members by throwing in a country flavour here and there.
Lyrically the album sticks largely to pop-rock sensibilities. There’s no shortage of love-lost and love-found jaunts on Basement Birds. There’s no profound moments; no one here is trying to outdo the other with their prose. Instead, Basement Birds shines with its rich instrumentation; the four bring together very different sounds to create something wholly new that at the same time any fan of the four should easily embrace.
The album is perhaps at its strongest when they do venture off the beaten track as with the Temperley-driven Holly, a sweet anthemic gospel-rock driven number (with hints of Powderfinger-esque grandeur) that in my ideal world would be the lead single. Meanwhile the acoustic guitar and pedal steel instrumental that is Hamilton Hill is an enjoyable mid-album repree before kicking it up in the rockin’ Hardest Part that features perhaps Lucky’s best slide work of the album, and four-part harmonies that are what this group was made for.
It’s tracks like Heartache on the Radio where the Basement Birds shine, the irony of lines like “Say do you get sick of always hearing the same old songs?” sung by a collective musicians that have had their share of domination of the airwaves in recent years; throwing in a reference to Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me, a film about a psychotic radio listener-turned stalker who requests the same song ad nauseum. Sounds to me like these four perpetrators of playlist domination are just as sick of the concept of high rotation as the rest of us. All that remains is for Triple J to pick up this track and give it a spin once an hour for the next month.