The impatient wait for new recorded material from Birds of Chicago is now over and not a single second of the four year period between studio albums appears to be wasted. REAL MIDNIGHT is the band’s re-emergence record and it rolls out with heavyweight appeal. The rock ‘n’ soul emotion pouring out of the eleven tracks evokes a jaw dropping reaction. JT and Allison prove once again to be the dream pairing, fusing a tight bond to ensure the body of their work unveils as an ethereal formula. The spirit of this record lies in the vocal contribution whether harmony, duet or solo as Allison’s soulful passion spars endlessly with the aching rock tones of JT.
While forever being the core of JT Nero and Allison Russell, Birds of Chicago cover a multitude of instrumental bases whether in the studio or on the road with their contributors. Acclaimed Joe Henry has done a sterling production job on the record, which surfaced in the wake of the now customary crowd funding campaign, so essential these days for independent artists. It was noted that the same producer has worked with Carolina Chocolate Drops alongside a pantheon of great American artists, and there is more than a hint of Rhiannon Giddens when Allison hits full throttle. This is most evident in the rivetingly uplifting ‘Barley’ which begins with the brutal beauty of Allison’s vocals before accompanying percussion kicks in; a pure display of secular gospel. This is one of two tracks that did see the light of day in some recorded format when appearing on the band’s 2014 live album, the other being ‘Sparrow’.
This live album which sparkled with such precision has proved the buffer between the new release and their eponymously titled debut in 2012. It was apt that the band embarked on a live release so early in their existence as the road proves to be very much their home. I can recall the couple’s newly born daughter being upstairs at a venue when they visited Birmingham a couple of years ago and this appears to be a continual pattern courtesy of sharing their touring tales via social media. Full appreciation of the chemistry between Allison and JT was fulfilled that night. Although, the talents of Allison had previously crossed my path in her Po Girl days and the clarinet playing evident then also appears on the new record. This is primarily on the excellent ‘Remember Wild Horses’ which also displays the couple in superb duet mode.
While the vocal contribution edges more in Allison’s direction, the writing is almost the sole domain of JT for the record. Not that Allison doesn’t excel in this field as well, especially as ‘Barley’ is her contribution and she played a significant writing role in Po Girl alongside the supremely similarly talented Awna Teixeira. Occasionally JT takes full reins of the vocals as evidenced at the start of ‘Estrella Goodbye’ and later features prominently in the solid track ‘Time and Times’ which bolsters up the latter stages of the record. The penultimate song on the album’s standard format proves to be one of the stand-out moments with ‘The Good Fight’ drenched in rousing positivity. Earlier eleven tracks were referred to, but Kick Starter activists were gift wrapped two bonus songs in ‘Love Kills Shadows’ and ‘Good Dream’.
Eyes are peeled for when Birds of Chicago decide to descend on our shores to promote this fine record and presently there only appears a solitary London date tagged onto a European visit in late spring. While the constraint of overseas touring is appreciated for a self-funding act, this record has the potential for Birds of Chicago to gain a further entrenched foothold in the UK. So hope prevails for an extended UK provincial tour at some point in the future to give this album greater exposure over here it undoubtedly warrants.
From the stimulating piano accompanied opener ‘Dim Star of the Palisades’, through the centrally placed title track ‘Real Midnight’ to the imaginative closer ‘Pelicans’, this record fails to reveal any weak points. It is decorated from head to toe in rich wealth and totally embodies the ideals of complete autonomy. REAL MIDNIGHT perfectly frames the musical philosophies of Allison Russell and JT Nero thus delivering a Birds of Chicago album to reside comfortably with the other big hitters to grace the contemporary roots scene in 2016. It’s a record bursting at the seams to reach the cultured ears, so why not yours?