Bilby – The Length of a String

The Length of a String

Oh ideas. Ideas, ideas, ideas. People get them. Some are good, and some are bad. Let’s look at some examples. Walking into a European soccer match wearing the opposing team’s jersey is a very bad, potentially suicidal, idea. Remembering your wife’s (husband’s, etc.) birthday, on the other hand, is a very very good idea. Bilby’s Mung, an Australian musician who put this here album together, had an idea. Predictably, his idea falls somewhere between the extremes of the ideas mentioned above. Mung’s idea was to write some pleasant, indie-guitar tunes and grab a few female vocalists to sing over them. Good idea? Bad idea? Little bit of both actually.
Mung’s idea goes by the name of Bilby, and it’s less a band than a side project for Mung, who usually spends time in a band called Bidston Moss. He plays nearly all of the album’s instruments, leaving only the vocal duties and odds and ends to the three women he has chosen to interpret the songs (the women do share writing credits on the songs they perform).
Perhaps the most impressive thing about project Bilby is the quality of the vocalists. Chris, Beth, and Jel all have strong, confident, able voices that lend body and strength to Mung’s often sparse compositions. None of the girls have spectacular range or power, but they’re all enjoyable in that sort of coffee-shop, indie-pop sort of way. Chris opens the album with “Valium.” The song’s melody sounds a lot like some of the songs on Sleater-Kinney’s Hot Rock, though the instrumentation is far different: replacing the trebly guitars are subtle acoustic guitars sliding their way through a thin backdrop that sounds like a pillow hitting the bottom spacious cavern. It’s pretty, restrained, and one of the album’s best songs. Jel’s only appearance on the album is the excellent “Stammer.” Jel’s voice is a bit more distinguished than her cohort’s voices, and she deftly slides her way gorgeously through a Joni Mitchell-ish melody that leaves you wanting more after its short two and a half minutes is over.
Beth’s contributions seem to come with a little more backing. Both “Home” and “Ruff” are more full sonic treatments than either of the songs mentioned above. Both are good songs that offer a comparatively up-tempo dynamic. The change in pace is welcome, and “Ruff” is even a pretty decent Kim Deal rip. When things slow down, however, she struggles: her breathy voice doesn’t mix as well with the toy-box melodies of “Bonny.”
So back to the good ideas and the bad ideas. Experiments like this are a bit dangerous. First off, it can be tough to find enough good vocalists to put the songs to life, though Mung seems to have done a commendable job in that respect. Second, albums like this often lack any sort of cohesion, and though this album doesn’t seem disjointed, it suffers from any real sense of direction, and I’m afraid much of the unity comes from similar tempos and arrangements though. But when the writing is good, and everything falls into place, you can end up with songs like “Valium,” “March,” and “Stammer,” all of which are excellent examples of a songwriter finding a great voice for his songs. And though at times it seems he runs out of ideas, that’s ok. You don’t need a lot of ideas. Just a couple good ones.