A Filthybird takes flight

by Amy Kingsley

In the first song on Filthybird’s debut album, vocalist Renee Mendoza sings, “this record box is a nice warm womb,” while an organ pumps in the background. Mendoza’s voice is dense and commanding; it complements the wash of sound behind it in a way that is, in fact, kind of womblike. Southern Skies is torrid and layered, and, unlike their live show, is more encompassing than expansive. And like a womb, the album is nurturing and cozy.

Filthybird released their album to the record-buying (or CD-buying) public on April 28 with a show at the Flatiron. It’s a 10-song, 35-minute compilation that feels longer than it is. And I mean that in a good way. Southern Skies is the aural equivalent of an organizational savant’s studio apartment: Nothing intrudes where it shouldn’t, and nifty details manifest themselves in the nooks.

Founding members Mendoza and Brian Haran, a guitarist, started making music together as Filthybird right after they met, which happened, serendipitously enough, on the evening that Mendoza’s old band, Ashrae Fax, played their last show. For a while the duo played alone or with a rotating cast of supporting players, but they never gelled live until they added bassist Mike Duehring and drummer Shawn Smith to the permanent lineup in February 2006.

Renee had known Duehring for years, Haran said, and Smith joined the band after he e-mailed them offering his services. Since their induction, Filthybird has become devastatingly good.

Southern Skies was recorded at home by Haran, using an old Macintosh and four microphones. The guitarist can’t recall how long the recording process lasted.

“Recording it went really quickly but mixing took a while,” he said.

In fact, Haran had mixed the album by the end of last summer, but he was unhappy with the results and remixed it. Filthybird shopped the album out to a number of smaller indie labels before finally settling on upstart Red Strings Records out of Durham. Haran said the band went with Red Strings because of the owners’ willingness to let the band chart their own creative course.

“[Red Strings Records’] Kelly [Davis] is a really straightforward, down-to-earth guy,” Haran said. “Everyone else wanted to squish us into another type of sound. Everyone wanted us to sound more freak folk.”

Four days after the finished CDs arrived in Greensboro, Southern Skies jumped to the top of the chart at WQFS, the Guilford College student radio station.

Haran’s lush production has a certain earthy uniformity, but the band itself jiggers the arrangement to suit each song, removing guitars, keys and drums to carve out necessary space.

The opener, “Warm Womb,” is a lilting number, despite an abrupt beginning, and eases the listener into the album. Lyrically it’s one of the most uplifiting tracks; it promotes music as shelter and heritage, a theme that permeates the album.

The third track “Fightsong” is the most recognizable from their live show and the best example of their chemistry as a quartet. Smith’s galloping drums, Duehring’s nimble bass playing and Haran’s guitar work supplement Mendoza’s voice without overwhelming it.

Chris Clodfelter contributes a trumpet part to the haunting “Sing,” a song Mendoza credits to her mother. “Sing” is a lullaby, ostensibly, but a dark one that acknowledges the pain of adulthood.

In “The Gospel of Truth (as Judas Told it to Me)” the lyrics flirt with autobiography when the singer reveals: “I was born to sing/ it’s all I know to do/ it takes all I’ve got/ to do the things that I know I should do.” Her mother and grandmother were also born to sing, it seems, but the cruel world robbed them of their voices.

Filthybird sounds like Cat Power playing Neil Young tunes through My Morning Jacket’s castoff effects units. It’s an amalgam of progressive Southern sounds sweetened with the local honey of Mendoza’s voice. The quiet songs work alongside the rockers, and even bleed into them, as in the last two tracks on the album.

Southern Skies is not freak folk – that genre of music confected by neo-hippies on the West Coast. It sounds as homey and mournful as Greensboro itself. Between the notes, you can almost hear the tones contributed by the house itself, credited by Haran as Pinebox Studio.

It’s the house on the front cover of the CD insert you hear in those notes: a Southern two-story with a wide porch. On that porch is a piano, framed by the encroaching limbs of a flowering tree.

Southern Skies will be available for purchase at BB’s Compact Discs in the Quaker Village Shopping Center, and maybe at Old Town Draught House sometime in the near future.

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