Review Summary: Ian Kenny and friends leave the pub early for a night at the opera. Excellence ensues.
“Welcome to one of the coolest things we’ve ever done as a band,” says an enthusiastic Ian Kenny to an even more enthusiastic audience. He’s on stage with one of his two noteworthy bands, Birds of Tokyo, yet the setting couldn’t be more different to where and how the band normally plays. He’s surrounded by acoustic guitars, a grand piano and a string quartet. Welcome to Broken Strings
, where Kenny and co. have gone beyond the call of MTV Unplugged and attempted complete re-workings of their music in this setting. For those of us not lucky enough to have caught the tour, the two-disc recording has now surfaced. Broken Strings
is an impressive display of what the group is capable of when thrown into a musical deep end, with each of the two sets on disc putting together the pieces of a very worthwhile tour.
Commencing with a string quartet medley of the band’s best-known songs, the band emerges to Universes
’ “Armour for Liars”, which sounds marvellous with swelling strings and big three-part harmonies weaving through the hook. The basic premise is to take the band’s music and attempt to reinterpret them as fitting to their new environment. No big rock moments are allowed within the premises – even drummer Adam Weston, normally a powerhouse behind the kit, shows incredible restraint in his playing. When it comes down to it, Broken Strings
is all a matter of streamlining these big, fearless rock songs into something that is notably more delicate and careful in its arrangement.
There’s a selection of songs that work in the band’s favour in order to turn into Broken Strings
versions – the 5/4 ballad “The Baker’s Son” sounds even greater with the aid of the string quartet; and Universes
closer “Medicine” is a soaring triumph, presenting what is possibly Kenny’s finest moment on the recording. Early hit “Wayside” is also a great workout for Kenny’s powerful, emotive vocals, as well as invaluable pianist Glenn Sarangpany. There’s a lot more in the band’s arsenal, however, that’s a little more difficult to rework.
They’re not always as successful as they could be, either – “Violet”, for all of its lovely strings, doesn’t stray very far from its original inception; and “Black Sheets” ends up fairly messy and half-baked in comparison to the other tracks. It’s when and how the band overcomes the challenge, however, that makes Broken Strings
so interesting. “Wild Eyed Boy”, one of the “big three” singles from Universes
, is here reinvented with a skip in its step and clever use of plucked violin. “Head In My Hands” brings in a ukulele to the fray with charming results, and the swaying “Rest Here My Brother” is arguably the best version of any of the tracks to be featured in the setlist lifeted from 2007’s Day One
record. From Kenny’s vocal aerobics to Adam Spark’s dark-and-light acoustic strums, the rendition is a triumphant experiment that emphasises everything that the tour itself is about.
Also of significant note is the sole cover of the performance – Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Normally a cause for gospel-choir funk and over-the-top soulful vocal solos, BoT has none of it here. Conversely, Spark simply plays the chords quietly, with relatively little groove to speak of. Meanwhile, Kenny delivers the vocals in his rarely heard lower range, slowly dissecting the words of the song with cold, distant emotion. Undoubtedly, this is one of the biggest gambles the band takes, and it pays off in truckloads if the huge applause at the end is anything to go by.
A must for fans and a possible conversion point for those unconvinced of the Birds’ talent, Broken Strings
is a success for all involved. It’s obvious that a lot of work has gone into the new sounds that the Birds expand their wingspan over, and the plumage looks finer than ever as a result of it. Now go and listen to it before any more atrocious bird-related metaphors come flying at you.