The Incredible String Band casts a long shadow. It is difficult to think of a purveyor of psych folk (or acid folk, or wyrd folk, or whatever you kids like to call it these days) that hasn’t been touched by it in some way. With its debut in Birds in Shells, Āustras Laīwan demonstrates that this particular shadow stretches at least as far as the shores of the Baltic.
In essence, Āustras Laīwan is Alexey Popov (under the pseudonym Aulakis) accompanied by various guests, and anyone familiar with his primary band, Sunset Wings (many of whom appear here), will have some idea of what to expect this time around: acoustic music that is pretty and melancholic, and which meanders between field recordings, melody, and more abstract passages. Āustras Laīwan leans more towards abstraction at the expense of melody, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Delicacy is the key here. Throughout the eponymous opener and the following ‘Witas Aldikas Peismen’ suite, the dynamic barely raises above a (sometimes actual) whisper. The arrangements are impeccable, and the sound is so well-produced that it is crystal-clear and expansive: there is a world of space in there that matches the dominant tone of placid calm perfectly. In places, the music is so barely there that it is mostly air, light, and space—the closest parallel to some of it would be Yuko Ikoma‘s exceptional reworkings of Erik Satie on her Moisture with Music Box CD.
Although Birds in Shells is largely an instrumental record, there are occasional voices. For the most part, these consist of whispered words or passages of recitation. The spoken-word passages fit reasonably well with the overall feel of the music, but on the (thankfully rare) occasions where there is singing, the effect is less pleasing, wandering a bit too close for comfort to the late-eighties vocal stylings of Current 93.
If there is one other criticism that might be levelled at this largely enjoyable album, it’s that Āustras Laīwan makes it sound too easy. The arrangements are lovely, the writing accomplished, and the tonal palette (dominated by various woodwinds and strings with some piano—solid Third Ear Band territory) is a delight. But the musicians are so at ease with what they do that they sound like they could do it in their sleep. Perhaps it’s perverse to want an album as gentle and delicate as this to be anything other than entirely gentle and delicate, but a smidgen more passion wouldn’t have gone amiss. It’s all terribly polite, and the image that comes to mind is of a chamber group playing quietly in the background at a soiree—nice, but unobtrusive and too easy to ignore.
In essence, Birds in Shells is a pleasant record that will find favour among admirers of Popov’s other work. It’s difficult to imagine what more there might be to do in this direction, but if this proves to be anything more than a one-off album, it will be interesting to hear how it might develop.
01) Birds in Shells
02) Wītas Āldikas Pēismen #1: Daggis, 2012
03) Wītas Āldikas Pēismen #2: Spallins, 2001
04) Wītas Āldikas Pēismen #3: Sillins, 1993
05) De avibus et conchis
06) Hail the Dawn
07) Carpe diem—aves et mollia
08) Old Lady
09) Of Light, Feathers, Soils and Tears
10) Deiniskas waistis
11) Appis austa
12) They Left Their Shells