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A Filthybird makes a nest in the attic

by Jordan Green

The music of Reneé Mendoza and Brian Haran seems to float between stations, a lonely ship in vast sonic space. Their band Filthybird is a rare musical vehicle that is inextricably linked to a relationship between two people and the creative refuge of their home studio where they record their art, catching fleeting moments between the demands of work and school.

The act of recording is central to the life of Filthybird ‘—’ an endeavor that pairs Mendoza’s songwriting talent with Haran’s engineering expertise.

The band has a new single out.

The single medium seems to have gone out of style about the time INXS and the Bangles broke. It was the currency of the record industry in the time of Sam Cooke and pre-decrepitude Elvis. At the dawn of the album-oriented era, as with the Rolling Stones’ ‘“Honky Tonk Women,’” the single worked as a jewel flung to the masses between full-lengths.

The new Filthybird single ‘—’ ‘“Kites Without Tails’” backed with ‘“Houses’” ‘—’ is not a small vinyl disc with a song on each side. Rather, it’s a homemade CD package that contains two songs. Such are the conditions of technology in 2005.

The songs may or may not be in rotation on Greensboro college radio as of this publication. As of Oct. 17, Haran says, WUAG is still reviewing the songs in advance of adding them to its play list. A large handmade poster in the window of Gate City Noise on Tate Street next to a notice about the store’s move to a new building is the most significant announcement of its existence.

‘“I like singles,’” Haran says. ‘“I like hearing from a band between singles ‘— something about having an evolution, building up anticipation. It’s nice to just get stuff out. We have a dozen songs that we’d like to put out.’”

The first song begins with a startling couplet of bass notes, a sudden surge of thick air, a percussive clatter and Mendoza’s keening, sublime voice pressing forward against a traditional pop guitar riff. Mendoza calls her songs ‘“documents.’” They seem to be snapshots of momentary interior conditions and they are studded with surreal imagery. ‘“Kites without tails’” and its partner ‘“ships without sails’” suggest sadness and incompletion.

The second song, ‘“Houses,’” begins with a promise and a query ‘—’ ‘“Beautiful dreams, who knows what they mean?’” ‘— and ends with a strange corporeal reference to a hospital bed with the report: ‘“Have to perform emergency amputee surgery, and see what they can do for you.’”

Mendoza has a way of taking a phrase and turning it on its head or sharpening it with fresh meaning. On the lead track of Filthybird’s 2004 In Good Time, a five-song CD and its first outing, she repeats the phrase ‘“nice warm womb’” over a melodic piano progression, and only at the end drops in the phrase ‘“nice warm tomb,’” hitting a dissonant note on the last word as the song drops away.

There are more songs to record. One, ‘“Life As a Ghost,’” is only a four-track demo sketched out with Mendoza’s voice and piano playing as of evening of Oct. 18. Mendoza’s plaintive voice remarks on voices and faces ‘“underwater,’” and then elongates the image to ‘“it looks like your face is under a watery grave.’”

Just now, at a quarter after 10 p.m., Mendoza and Haran sit on their front steps smoking cigarettes. Mendoza is drinking a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. It’s been a long day. She’s been making hundreds of truffles all week at her job at Spring Garden Bakery to accommodate the demand of buyers in town for High Point’s fall Furniture Market.

The two take classes at UNCG and Haran holds down as job as a cook at Old Town Draught House and Grill on Spring Garden Street.

After the break it’s time to get back to work. The two tramp upstairs and pass through a sliding flip-door into an attic that contains a drum set and keyboards and, behind a partition, some recording equipment. An open window allows the agreeable night air to wash through.

‘“Our landlord built this attic to grow marijuana in, so it has all these crazy trapdoors and tunnels,’” Mendoza says.

The attic is a magical refuge, now an incubator for other kinds of intoxicants.

When they first got to know each other Haran had just moved down from New York. Mendoza was winding up her commitments with a band called Ashrae Fax. She would visit Haran, who lived in the attic while other tenants occupied the downstairs rooms.

‘“We were falling in love listening to music,’” Mendoza says. ‘“One of the songs we listened to was Robyn Hitchcock’s ‘Happy Bird Is A Filthy Bird.’ That’s basically us. We have a very melodic, organic feel, which is what I bring to it. Brian dirties it up.’”

They had met at Ashrae Fax’s final show at Ace’s Basement. Shortly after that, Haran recorded a song Mendoza wrote as a teenager called ‘“Circa’s Song to Herself’” about a bird hearing a playback of her own singing.

‘“We recorded acoustic guitar and vocals,’” Haran recalls. ‘“You went home and I hung out with it and wrote new guitar parts and it came out different. I kind of did my thing with it.’”

Mendoza explains the Filthybird creative process: ‘“I write the songs. Brian will write the guitar parts, drums and bass. He’s a great soundscapist. He’s responsible for the Filthybird sound.’”

In two hours time Haran has recorded Mendoza’s piano and vocal tracks ‘— splashes of paint over the sketch ‘— repetition, repetition and eventually satisfaction.

‘“That was great,’” Haran says finally, and remarks that Mendoza sounds like a female version of the legendary Dayton, Ohio rock songwriter Robert Pollard, and the song structure like his band Guided By Voices.

‘“You want another vocal?’” he asks.

She nods and inhales.

‘“Okay buddy.’” he says.

‘“Okay buddy.’”

And they do another take.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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