The Bye Bye Blackbirds – Boxer at Rest (five out of five)
The first thing that jumps out when you hit the play button or drop the needle down on Boxer at Rest, the supremely excellent new record by Oakland California’s Bye Bye Blackbirds, is the pristine knob-twirling production value courtesy of Doug Gillard, who has worked with Guided By Voices and Nada Surf as well as many other bands you like, that hits you between the ears on the first song “You Were All Light.”
At first-listen, the opening drum intro followed by the Big Star worthy guitar chords will float your mind-space back to happier and even hippier times. And, once the perfectly mixed vocals join the party courtesy of the George Harrison meets Tom Petty (Travelling Wilbury’s era) vibe of the main songwriter Bradley Skaught, suddenly, as the horns kick-in to take you home, all is right with the world. And it almost wasn’t.
As the album was written and the tracking well underway at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, founding member Lenny Gill fell gravely ill with an illness requiring a heart transplant almost derailing the record before it really got started. Then, during a period of time when Lenny’s ability to ever play the guitar again was very much in doubt, the band recorded each of the individual tracks with the exception of the guitar parts and put them on a shelf for safekeeping. Replacing the irreplaceable and finding another player to fill in for Lenny was never an option. It was a time to be patient, a time to live, a time to heal. Until finally, after a hard-fought nine months of rehab, the boxer at rest was ready to get back into the ring recording all of the guitar parts in one day.
Having been largely written before Lenny’s illness, the songs on Boxer at Rest are mostly upbeat affairs with an undercurrent of social consciousness lying just below the surface of virtually every track. Two of the songs that demonstrate Bradley Skaught’s agile songwriting skills, “How Do We Stay?” and “All Our Friends” directly address the tragic 2016 fire that killed 36 people in a warehouse known as The Ghost Ship that had been converted into an artist collective in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.
All we do is love you
and sing your names out
We pulled the anchor
And kissed you out to sea
And, on “So True” the gentrification of the neighborhoods in and around Oakland with hipster lofts and overpriced coffee shops taking over the landscape is lamented.
“In miles of old alleyways, all our secrets in piles, left outside where the dogs can find them. Gone like they’d never arrived.”
There is a poetic poignancy to virtually every song on this record that is enhanced even more so through a set of quality headphones and multiple listens. The liner notes clearly say play this one loud. Advice best heeded.
Trying to choose a favorite song or to cull band influences or genres from the choice morsels presented here would be somewhat of a fools’ errand. There is literally nothing not to like with this record. Sure, there are fairy dustings of Big Star, The Birds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Box Tops sprinkled everywhere, but make no mistake. Lenny, Bradley and the rest of the band aren’t simply riding the coattails of those that have gone before them, they are playing it forward with depth and deep reverence. Just listen to the guitar licks that would make Sun Records and Sam Phillips proud towards the end of “War Is Still Hell” and tell us we’re wrong. On “Watch Them Chime” you might catch the scent of R.E.M.’ or even a Tim era Replacements vibe. And, on “Baby It’s Still You” the horns are back in just the right spots and the band’s secret weapon, Kelly Atkins, announces herself in fine fashion even though she has been classing up the joint earlier with her elegant harmonies throughout many many of the tracks.
At a nice and tidy 33 minutes and 23 seconds, this one is best savored in one sitting with a nice cocktail in hand, surrounded by good friends, toasting those that are no longer able to join us.