Review: Futurebirds ‘Baba Yaga’

Grade: B-

Verdict: A richly rewarding jam band experience with a southern-fried tinge will greet you if you’re willing to stay awake through all the filler.

I’ll just cut right to the chase: how you feel about this album rests entirely on how you feel about jam bands. Do you love the idea of long musical improvisations with multiple instruments and hazy vocals, and an ambient wall of sound, all held down  by the dulcet tones of a whining pedal steel guitar? Congratulations. This album was made for you and may be the best you’re likely to find in the genre. Did reading all of that just fill you with dread? Not to worry, Futurebirds haven’t left you out. There are still some great songs on here, and the band finds new ways to impress with their increasingly complex arrangements. Just be warned: you’re going to want to listen to those arrangements in small dosages, because unless you’re predisposed to the idea of swaying to music barefoot in an open field, the line between “beautiful, ambient folk” and the snooze button is a very fine one on Baba Yaga.

Musically, the Athens outfit hasn’t changed much since their promising debut, Hamptons’ Lullaby (2010), and this is very much a good thing. Futurebirds bring back that enticing mix of swirling, ambient melodies, sprinkled in with southern-fried sensibilities to create a truly memorable experience on each track. If you could compare their sound to anything, it would be early My Morning Jacket, or perhaps a less drug fuelled Grateful Dead, and even those comparisons feel hollow. While Futurebirds’ early albums were simply collections of individual songs, this one finds the band in their element, channeling all their combined, creative energies for a lengthy, experimental jam session. Each song blends into the next almost seamlessly, and for all the activity that’s happening in every track, it never sounds cacophonous; the fuzzy lo-fi buzz in “Serial Bowls” harmonize just fine with the bluesy, slide guitar on “American Cowboy.” On their frantic two year recording process for Baba Yaga, the band had stated that for their third LP, they wanted to do their best to capture the feel of an intimate live show, and at that they’ve succeeded.

The downside to this is that the album as a whole feels about twenty minutes too long. A lot of otherwise great ideas have their fire sucked out of them by lingering well past the point of being interesting. The vocals and instruments mix together in a hazy summer swell that can become quite monotonous. There are a few songs that manage not to wear out their welcome by subtly changing things up. “Dig” toys around with several melodies, going from a crooning folk ballad, to simmering riff rocker, before mellowing out again. And “Strangers” is one of the most stripped-down songs present on the album, serving as a nice contrast to the ambient, atmospheric drone that dominates everywhere else.

That’s not to besmirch the Futurebirds’ unique sound; they very well might be one of the most unique sounding jam bands out there, not neatly fitting into any one category. They prefer instead to straddle the line between alternative country, lo-fi rock and folk. On Baba Yaga they simply continue that trend and take it outside. At times, it feels like a little much and a bit overwhelming, but the Futurebirds couldn’t sound more at home.