By Leah Burgin, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 1, 2009
How the Cause Became the Cure meanders between toe-tapping, high-energy tunes and melodic, crooning orchestral numbers. The album ebbs and flows beneath the versatile vocal umbrella of Jared Saltiel, vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist for The Dirty Birds.
The Dirty Birds
How the Cause Became the Cure
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This debut album for The Dirty Birds was partly recorded at Big Sky Recordings right here in the band’s home base, Ann Arbor. But however strictly midwestern The Dirty Birds’ beginnings may be, their music molds together all sorts of genres — including jazz, pop, folk and rock — into a wonderfully rich sound, deeply layered but simultaneously subtle.
The instrumentals for “Katrina” and “Saudade” showcase the band’s incredible musical sensibility. Intricate and delicate guitar and keyboard melodies deftly intertwine with the string orchestration, then suddenly erupt into heart-wrenching and soulful crescendos. Such explosions are always expertly placed — the band lures listeners into a state of anticipation and flips the switch at the optimal moment to release a great deal of musical tension.
This musical sensibility extends into the album’s lyrics. Though bland and unimpressive on paper, when combined with the music the lyrics transform from nonchalant statements into bold proclamations. The tangled love duet “Just As Blue” asks, “If there were no more air on earth / would I share my last breath with you?” This is a fairly morbid (if not somewhat tired) thought, yet the consistent and prevalent drum beats ground the lofty wondering.
Jaunty and jazzy, “Self-Discipline” earnestly inquires “So will somebody please tell me why the hell it derails me / every time the world fails me?” without a single hint of whiny adolescent attitude. In fact, the song's heavy jazz influence turns this complaint on its head — the potentially petty question becomes a subtle expression of empowerment. The Dirty Birds exhibit an acute sensitivity to the interaction between music and lyrics — each line is crafted beautifully and blends perfectly into the surrounding orchestration.
How the Cause Became the Cure exhibits two aspects of album compilation that can be hard to master, especially for such a young group. The album’s bookends are particularly strong, gratifying listeners’ expectations to be engaged from beginning to end. The orchestrations and lyrics on album opener “What I Realized” and closer “The Problem” are some of the most powerful on the entire album.
Both tracks are among the most upbeat numbers. They’re unifiers, weighing down the other tracks and keeping them from rambling away. Furthermore, both songs reach the middle ground of the album’s generic jungle — there is not one predominant genre bias in either track — allowing these bookends to concisely summarize the album's unique collage of styles. The fact that The Dirty Birds chose to place these songs at the beginning and at the end further reveals a great musical sensibility.
It is equally impressive when an album’s cover art perfectly matches its tone. How the Cause Became the Cure’s cover impeccably suits the almost melancholy and subtle nature of the album’s contents. The muted, water-colored hues of a winter scene, dominated by a solitary and solemn old-fashioned house upon a hill, invite the listener into The Dirty Birds' foreboding haven. The house’s many windows, lit with a sickly greenish tint, convey the dampened brightness of the album’s sound. This house is not only the perfect setting for where an album like this may have been born, but also for where this album should ideally be listened to.
How the Cause Became the Cure is incredibly well-balanced. The album not only flourishes in production quality, but also in lyrical and musical terms — by blending so many genres, the album becomes virtually genre-less. This, however, is a double-edged sword — with no distinct and consistent “feel,” there are few situations where someone might say, “Man, this is the perfect time for some Dirty Birds.”
The album is too tame to charge an atmosphere and too dynamic to serve as chill background music. How the Cause Became the Cure exists in a gorgeous but cursed musical limbo — if the album were to leave this state, it would be undone. This delicate balance is what both defines and confines the album.