Monday, August 15, 2005

The Ragbirds-- Yes Nearby

The Ragbirds. It’s the name of a band, and it almost sounds like it could be a phrase lifted from a Tom Waits song. But no, to my knowledge, this band’s moniker has nothing to do with the howling junkyard poet. If anything, The Ragbirds sound like they could be the Anti-Waits; while Waits performs his songs with coughs, rasps, and sputters, Ragbirds singer erin Zindle actually sings hers, with a voice as pure and pristine as The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris. And, while Waits scours gutters and back alleys, assembling beautiful songs from ugly pieces of garbage, Zindle and her Birds glean the components of their music from all over the world, creating fleeting fits of beauty from the purest and noblest of sources.

Zindle is a terrific lead singer; her dynamic personality is what holds her varied, eclectic musical ideas together. But she’s not the only Ragbird. Colleagues Randall Moore, Adam Labeaux, Greg White, and Jeff Stinson bring indelible rhythms and flourishes of the exotic to Zindle’s tightly-woven, intimate folk songs. What results is rather remarkable: The Ragbirds’ debut album, Yes Nearby, is a work of astounding international eclecticism, mixing everything from reggae to Celtic to blues music—along with plenty of “world music”—into a unified, enchanting whole.

It’s also a work of great spiritual intimacy and poetic focus. Sometimes confessional and sometimes celebratory, these are the kinds of songs that Over the Rhine might record if they were to venture into jam-based, third world music. Zindle takes on the role of the searching spiritual pilgrim, but also of the fervent worshipper; she doesn’t so much sing about faith as she sings about everyday life as seen through the lens of faith. It isn’t dogma. It’s poetry.

In “Low Flying,” Zindle sings over acoustic guitars, ethnic percussion, and her own mournful violin, confessing her own wayward heart in journal-entry lyrics like these:

So this is what the heart feels like when it’s numb
I hitched a ride with just the tip of my thumb
I never knew how far away I could be

I never knew all this distance was in me

Her disease gets a name in the steady reggae groove of “Narcissick.” Here the narrator is so self-absorbed that she thinks everything from natural disasters to radio playlists is somehow connected to her:

Wild fires in the west, wild storms in the east
And I have a hard time believing it has nothing to do with me
The radio played that sad song twice tonight at least
And I have a hard time believing it has nothing to do with me

“Picture” begins as another brooding folk tune until it erupts into an explosive, celebratory jam. Here, man-made images and human imaginations are insufficient in capturing the glory of the Almighty; likewise, in the groovy sing-along “Tipi Baya,” the singer still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, and finds no answers at the courthouse or the market.

I asked at the market
For a good worth consuming
For some soap for my brainwash
A box of quick fixes

The search for truth finally yields results in the inspired “Adoration,” a worshipful, trance-like meditation that recalls Iona at their most impassioned. Here Zindle and 7-year-old guest vocalist Darby Horne trade off on lines of sweet praise:

I want to come to your house, God
And climb inside your window
I want to find you in your room
And cry on your shoulder

Zindle falters only when she turns her attention from intimate confessions to social commentary; on the bluesy “Door in the Wall,” for example, she stumbles by trading poetry for preachy generalizations:

‘Cause America’s so doped up on the entertainment industry that
Their numb-comfortable hearts will not be stirred

In the end, though, poetry and optimism prove to be the Ragbirds’ typical MO. The title of Yes Nearby—inspired by a snippet of Magnetic Poetry—conveys a sense of hope and joy in the midst of tough times. It’s a happy album, but the happiness is hard-won and well-earned. It’s more than a feeling—it’s a genuine sense of peace and assurance that stays with the listener long after the album stops spinning, and it’s proof enough that The Ragbirds are a vital new voice in spiritually exploratory independent music.

(Lamentably, Yes Nearby is not available in very many stores, but you can order it online at

Originally posted by Josh Hurst at Reveal.


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