American Son is the fourth album release from Washington -based duo, The Winterlings, alias Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall. A meeting of minds at a Buddhist fire ritual (where else?) led to the formation of this tightly self-contained musical unit. Videos show that they occasionally perform with an additional vocalist/guitarist, but this album has the duo performing, recording and producing the entire thing themselves.
Bowden has said he wasn’t involved in music until he met Birdsall, so he clearly has a natural talent, keeping a loping bass drum beat behind his vocals and guitar. Birdsall, perhaps the more accomplished musician, also sings and plays guitar, banjitar, piano and violin. Both play the harmonica, too, although since neither are specifically credited on individual tracks, it’s impossible to tell the players apart – and perhaps that’s the point.
Lyrically, the songs create strong visual impressions, often rooted in natural imagery and a connectedness with environment with “places as wild as your inside” on ‘That Was Alaska’, or the Joni Mitchell-ish ‘Sunspeech’. This latter also lets Birdsall’s vocal range fly, one of only two songs to feature her lead vocal, the other being ‘Gold’. With its laid-back porch-song vibe set to a lazy drum beat, ‘Gold’ views time as “like an earthquake, always shaking something loose”.
‘The Ghost Of Leonard’, an homage to Leonard Cohen, features a deeply rumbling “oh, ah, amen” chorus that might be influenced by Native American chanting, or The Crash Test Dummies “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” song. In trying to honour Cohen’s style there’s a tendency to veer towards the portentous, with lines like “the bible burning in the hobo’s stove” but it’s a song that packs a powerful punch, nonetheless.
If the title song itself appears to function as a kind of “State Of The Nation” address, it’s not an entirely positive picture. This is continued in the anti-greed message of ‘World To Change’, reminiscent of Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” mantra, it contains a gently menacing call to action: “we won’t wait for the world to change”.
Bowden and Birdsall can occasionally tend to over-rely on some rather mannered vibrato singing, that threatens to overwhelm the songs. It’s an unfortunate distraction from what is at its core a fine selection of songs, well-arranged, played and performed.
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‘All Of The Good Things’ – official video: