Humbird is a project of Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter (and pizza waitress) Siri Undlin, working with several other local musicians. As the album opens on an acoustic country-folk song, her voice is pure country, and I suppose she could be working out of Nashville if she had a mind to.
But obviously she doesn’t, because as you pay attention to these songs, it becomes apparent that this is truly “experimental” folk music. Called Pharmakon, this record looks at the current state of women in the world “through the lens” of ancient myth, folktales and legends. The fairytale known as Wolf Alice, for instance; or the biblical creation story of Eve, if Eve were boarding a train in 2019 America and writing a letter to an unidentified male figure.
That sort of thing. Stuff Nashville is decidedly not interested in these days, more’s the shame.
In the meantime, Siri Undlin is putting in double shifts in a pizza joint, then going to a bar with her band to play to an empty room because everyone is too absorbed in their personal devices these days to go out and socialize and listen to live music, as she does in the opener “48 Hours.”
As recorded and presented here, Undlin has a soprano of startling clarity and an achingly real ability to subtly express emotion. And a fine way of crafting a lyric that draws you in with specifics but never tells you what to think or feel. Take for instance a few stanzas in “Wolf Alice,” which juxtapose the contradictory traditional views of women as at once helpless and weak, while also being wild and dangerous creatures that must be subdued:
Butter me in apathy / Tie me up in ribbons pink / Hang me out to dry and then / Oh, I’ll become the wind again. / Wolf Alice, look at yourself / Feral beast from the forest shelf / Flesh upon your breath and words that melt, / Lookin’ in the mirror, but she can’t tell.
The playing, production and arrangements are likewise notable. Take that song about Eve, “Eve Boards A Train.” As elsewhere, Undlin accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, this time in a fingerpicked pattern that suggests but doesn’t mimic a train. The instrumentation throughout is restrained; that acoustic guitar, a bit of minimal drumming here, a plucked upright bass there, and on most songs some electronic touches: synth, Mellotron, Ace Tone. All recorded with a sharp clarity thanks to Shane Leonard who produced and plays a bunch of instruments.
This is such a brave album. Undlin puts her words and voice on the line, daring her audience to enter into her poetic explorations with song after song on themes that recur in our culture’s literature, tales, films, music. “April” is the cruelest month we’re told, and so she titles her exploration of mortality and love with that month’s name; in “Persephone” she dares to question the age-old interpretation of the myth through a feminist lens. As she says in the song notes, “What if Persephone was in love with Hades? What if her story has been told wrong for all these years?” And asks in the song, “Who are you to say where I choose to stay?” The first half of the song is set to a jazzy arrangement of dissonant piano chords, martial drumming and syncopated horns.
Even more experimental is the closing track “Bone Heat” which draws on imagery from the Snow Queen tale to explore emotional complexities of love, accompanied mostly by distorted samples of her voice replayed in a sort of Morse code pattern. Equally enigmatic as a love song but more straightforward musically is the jaunty, folksy title track “Pharmakon.” It uses the ancient Greek sense of the word as a substance both healing and poisonous as metaphor for love. “Love like a poison / September is going, going, gone …”
I feel experimented on by album’s end, by a young alchemist or sorcerer’s apprentice who’s happily making up spells and tossing them out to see what they’ll do. Serious themes and serious fun mark this quirky but never frivolous record. It’s a mindblowing debut.