The Lesser Birds of Paradise – A Suitable Frame

Fans of light, airy indie pop will likely fall in love with The Lesser Birds of Paradise. Originally formed as a musical outlet for singer/guitarist Mark Janka, it turned into more of a collaborative project. And with the combination of less conventional instrumentation like organ, accordion, clarinet, lap steel, musical saw and ukulele, the songs take on a different feel. Elements of Low and Hayden are interspersed with Elliot Smith moments and Will Oldham sensibilities. It makes for an interesting combination.
The album starts off strongly, just the way I like it. Soft and sparse, with light brush drums and some low guitar and accordion, the music takes second string to Janka’s equally soft vocals on “Her Velvet Elvis.” “You’re a Statue” continues the trend, soft with some pretty acoustic guitar and Janka’s vocals trading between the left and right speaker, interestingly enough. The accordion and lap steel guitar add a very interesting quality, a slightly country-ish twinge to the even softer “The Middle States.” And then that trend is continued, focusing a bit more strongly on the accordion and organ in songs like “Crystal Clear,” which does have some excellent and lightly jazzy drumming, and “When You’re a Pretty Girl.” “Row of Lights,” which throws in little bits of electric guitar and spices things up a bit, is loosely based on the John Steinbeck short story, “Saint Katy the Virgin,” in which Katy is a pig. Janka’s vocals are used much better on a song like this that shows a bit more vocal range. And while Janka says “God-Forsaken Polaroids” is his attempt to get away from telling stories in his songs, this one is probably the most endearing. His vocals take on a more playful quality, the song has a lighter approach, and the soft piano mixed with brush-drumming is very nice. There are some pretty ambient noises to back up “Me or Scurvey,” and then it’s followed up by 10 minutes or more of white noise, the sound of the ocean, etc.
Truth be told, this album tends to put me to sleep (especially the last 10 minutes), but then it does have a sleepy-time tale-telling feel to it, perhaps best enjoyed with a glass of wine, a cigarette and a dim room. Janka gives the feeling that he’s telling his stories on these songs as much as playing music, and that’s an endearing quality. But even with the addition of unusual instruments, he doesn’t spice up the songs quite enough or provide enough variation between the individual tunes. What’s here is good, pretty, and moving stuff, but it doesn’t work together as well as I would have liked.