Bird Show: Green Inferno

Some artists seem hell-bent on duking it out for the top of the pops, while others willfully take the road less traveled. Then there's Ben Vida, who's determined to take as many roads as possible on Green Inferno with trips landing him in Morocco, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and other far-flung locales. It's Vida's first solo outing since his 1999 debut Mpls. (and first as Bird Show) though he's amassed an extensive discography as a member of Town & Country, Pillow, Central Falls, and Terminal 4. Vida attempted to distill all of those groups' best qualities into Green Inferno, making for one unique album.

Perhaps its expansive sound shouldn't surprise, given Town & Country's penchant for minimalist composition and world folk musics, but Vida's Bird Show pushes the group sound to a further extreme. While he plays guitar, cornet, and harmonium in Town & Country, he extends the sonic palette on Green Inferno to violin, accordion, organ, qrareb (Moroccan castanets), assorted shakers, and mbira, plus adds field recordings from Tokyo by Atsuhiro Koizymi and Puerto Rico by Fred Lonberg-Holm. In keeping with the natural ambiance of the field recordings, Vida courted a relaxed vibe during the recording process and quelled the urge to smoothen the album's rough edges.

The album is framed by two related pieces, the opening a declamatory, throat-clearing fanfare called “All Afternoon Part #1.” After brief moments of bucolic bird twitter, braying Joujaka-like horns cumulate into a dense, keening drone while an African mbira pattern etches a faint ostinato underneath. Its closing counterpart revisits the sound of the first but intensifies and extends it into a near-cacophonous, broiling mass; as the piece nears its end, the relentlessly pounding percussion drops away, leaving only the horns to bring the album to an abrupt stop.

The remaining tracks include psychedelic drones, exotic interludes, and infectious dance pieces. Underlaid by chirping cicadae and the frog-like, guttural rumbles of a didgeridoo, Vida's somnambulant vocal and acoustic guitar in the peaceful “Kind Light” provide immediate relief from the intense overture. In the hallucinatory “Green Inferno,” vocal stutters and horn flutter segue into Moroccan dance rhythms generated by shakers and tambourines, while the best description for the rollicking “Tracers” might be African bluegrass. The album's centerpiece is a two-part, twelve-minute drone whose becalmed mood is nurtured by harmonium tones (that sound generated by organ and accordion) and gently swaying acoustic strums; the second drone, “Morning/Evening,” includes multiple layers of violin sawing, harmonium, and horns alongside Vida's hushed intonations.

Green Inferno offers much to admire. It's uncompromising, firstly: Vida doesn't sanitize the music by incorporating an excess of Western elements that might render the music more accessible. At the same time, it's personalized throughout by his intermittent vocals (as in the title track, for example, where his droning vocal is conjoined to the dance rhythms). There's a convincing authenticity to the sound, suggesting Vida's thoroughly absorbed the global sounds and rhythms for which he has such clear affection; even though he recorded the material at his Chicago home, one might just as easily imagine him entering an African village, tape device in hand, and recording the ensuing collaboration between him and the townspeople. An audacious outing and a perfect complement to kranky's equally bold catalogue.

February 2005