By Craig James
The noise of a cassette tape closing and low-fi strumming catch us off guard; memories of days past and the satisfaction of a tape deck “click” before the music starts. Yea-Ming Chen has transported us to another era before we have listened for two seconds. This is the gift of So, Bird… a gift to our imaginations as images, memories, and nostalgia flood in.
Yea-Ming’s bright alto voice delivers a shiny melancholy tinged with acceptance. Through listening, we journey with her into confessional spaces. Some songs are so personal you feel you are trespassing as if a ghost observing the untimely death of a relationship, but with music so deceptively upbeat and ultimately healing.
Yea-Ming and The Rumors’ So, Bird… has many influences that reveal themselves throughout the recording, but when you think you have her pinned down, she shifts, and we fly elsewhere. Nico, Joni Mitchell, and Lucinda Williams are just a few female talents who helped pioneer indie folk/alt-country in different directions. Yea-Ming has absorbed them all and stamped her unique voice on the genre. Asked whom she would cite as influences, she named; Yo La Tengo, Lee Hazelwood, Japanese Breakfast, Aislers Set.
Yea-Ming and The Rumors’ have delivered before, and this sophomore offering on Lilystars Records builds on their reputation without reinventing their sound.
The Rumors’ are:
Yea-Ming Chen, guitar/vocals/piano/etc
Eoin Galvin, guitar/lap steel
Sonia Hayden, drums
Anna Hillburg, bass/vocals
Session musician Matt Bullimore played guitar/synths/organ and handled engineering duties with a deft touch. While the recordings were produced by: Mike Walti, Yea-Ming Chen, and Matt Bullimore.
“I Don’t Dare”
Takes us to observe an unbalanced relationship. It starts with a private home studio ambiance as if you are listening to a demo track, as Yea-Ming exposes her vulnerability. Still, before the first minute is over, she reveals a polished indie sound that is distinctly Yea-Ming. Singing, “Baby, I don’t dare to tell you that I care,” she sets the scene as she confesses, “In my head, I scream and yell” over music full of calming self-control. The song ends with the self-hug of a reminder to herself, “Baby hold on.”
Oh Sweet Mother
Shows off pop sensibilities and is the first release from the album. While feeling relaxed, the song is about “being haunted by past mistakes and the regret that can suddenly, out of nowhere, feel so clear.” This has the depth of Harvest Moon, and while Yea-Ming admits to initially wanting to break new ground, she does this by not imitating influences but taking them one step further.
By The Sea
A song of yearning, set against swelling guitar and a simple melody. The understated percussion, laid-back pop sensibilities, and slide guitar move us easily to imagine growing old living by the “breathing sea.” Once again, Yea-Ming does not take the most direct route and mulls mars and the hall of fame in a life of possibilities.
Back To The Days Of I Don’t Knows
A change of pace and Yea-Ming sings of finding her own feet as she transports us Back To The Days Of I Don’t Knows. Remember them? Yea-Ming does and reminds us of when we resisted change and wanted things to stay the same. A strong song deserving of radio play.
Pour Some On You
Once more, we are in relationship territory, and Yea-Ming is unsure. Suffering insomnia, she sings “I want more to do” and interrogates herself over layers of sophisticated pop.
Look Me In The Eyes
The sparse musical intimacy reflects the lyrics mapping out “trouble found if we don’t watch out, so look me in the eyes, my love.” An honest plea for communication, or as the press release for the album reads, “a confessional map of the landscape of heartbreak.”
The bubbling pop of Ruth disguises a “vampire folk tale.” Yea-Ming is enjoying herself, and the underlying country guitar fits the storytelling and song perfectly.
Heartache Aint Nothing
“It ain’t true, but I’ll say it anyway, a heartache ain’t nothing to me.” This lyrical double negative could sit comfortably at the heart of this album. Yea-Ming knows what she is doing, and we bounce merrily along while she tries to convince herself or us while knowing she is fooling no one.
Sleeping In California
It is a song that grows and stays with you, an earworm with lyrics to ponder. “So, bird… be mine. Hey, trees… be kind.” A gentle healing mood as Yea-Ming assures us she will stay around awhile.
I Still Dream Of You
A haunting ambient feeling of being on a rollercoaster slowly taking you up to the crest, not sure what awaits. It feels like Matt Bullimore is channeling his inner Eno. The fragile intimacy of a recurring dream, the what-could-have-beens.
A delicate traditional Japanese “cradle song” that many other artists have covered. The song sits well with Yea-Ming and The Rumors, for this track, like others in this collection, is just as deceptive. We may not have the gift to interpret the lyrics, but the Burakumin, who traditionally sang the song, was an outcast community doing the jobs no one else would. The song is of a poor girl singing:
“This child keeps crying and it is unkind to me.
Every day, I grow thinner.
I would quickly quit here and go back.
To the other side (of the mountain), I can see my parents’ house.”
It is a fitting way to end a record so full of relationships, bringing it full circle with a lullaby to a poor baby sung by an outcast mother wanting to return home. Yea-Ming and The Rumors’ may sing about harsh relationship realities and the grittier end of life, but this is not a pity party; this is a musically optimistic soundtrack to the complicated world we live in.
In the liner notes, Stefanie Kalem calls the record a “dystopian valentine,” and it is, but it is also much more. Yea-Ming and The Rumors’ So, Bird… needs no question mark; it deserves to fly.
Buy on vinyl if you can, but this soundscape sells, so be warned… “After selling out of the initial pressing a SECOND run is in the works and set to ship at the end of the summer!”