Until now, David Rotheray has been best known for his role as guitarist with massively successful band The Beautiful South, and the co-writer (along with Paul Heaton) of a series of hits including You Keep It All In and Don't Marry Her. When that band broke up three years ago, after a remarkable 19-year career, and Rotheray went on to work with Homespun. Now he's back with a very different project: The Life of Birds is a collaboration with ten different singers, including many of the current celebrities of the British folk scene.
The result is an intriguingly varied album of often sad-edged songs that range from the playful to the thoughtful, covering topics that most songwriters would shy away from. Some, but not all, of the tracks have an ornithological theme, so The Sparrow, the Thrush and the Nightingale (which appears in two parts, as the opening and closing tracks) is a gently satirical piece about greed and betrayal in the music industry (the birds decide to make money by selling their songs) with Jim Causley taking the lead. Then there's the thoughtful, piano-backed Crows, Ravens and Rooks, which is finely sung by Kathryn Williams, and which Rotheray describes as "a somewhat middle-aged reflection on the virtues of serial monogamy". Causley reappears, in the company of Bella Hardy, for the gently cheerful The Hummingbird on Your Calendar, a "cosmic musing on the effable nature of time" with pedal steel guitar backing. Hardy shows how well she can handle a charmingly bittersweet pop ballad on The Digital Cuckoo, in which, says Rotheray, "a technophobe rails against electric clocks".
Elsewhere, unexpected lyrics deal with anything from illness and death to migration - with the often poignant or painful ideas at times matched against sturdy and cheerful-sounding melodies. So Almost Beautiful, sung by Eleanor McEvoy, combines a jazz-edged ballad with a bleak reflection on Alzheimer's disease, while Taller Than Me uses a simple piano and string backing for a song about childhood and mortality. In total contrast again is Draughty Old Fortress, a gothic mood piece featuring the compelling vocals of Alasdair Roberts, and The Road to the South, a drifting ballad about northerners moving to London with fine soulful vocals from Eliza Carthy.
As for Rotheray himself, he doesn't sing at all, instead playing bass or guitar on most of the highly original songs on this decidedly unusual set.
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