When the group then known as the gruesomely-titled We Will Eat Rats to Survive put out their first record back in 2009, they disguised the heft of their talent in a shroud of rust and wire. The songs were there, rock-solid and powerfully written, but it took a moment to settle into the grit of their aesthetic. I imagine followers of early Modest Mouse had the same experience once, before the group tightened their sound and scraped off the rough edges. Since then, though, the duo has been reborn. They've refined their songcraft, polished up their recordings, and even packed up their banjos and set out to play their music throughout the states. They keep an illustrated blog of their adventures on their website. Their debut LP as Barefoot on Bumblebees works as both a soundtrack to the travelogue and an independently wonderful musical reflection on yearning, death and wanderlust.
The raw quirk notable in Bumblebees' original incarnation hasn't dissolved entirely. A warm, lo-fi energy still pulses through Everything Shiny Is New, but the scratches and burns that clouded the fullness of sound on the group's previous release have been cleared away. This time around, the instrumentation inhabits a fuller role in the affect of each song. Bells, whistles and singing saws slink coolly around bristles of acoustic guitar and banjo. The arrangements have their bucolic charm, but the philosophy they're wrapped around weights each song with a momentum that pulls the record far from the realm of indie-folk preciousness and into a deeper, more vital space.
These songs sound exactly as though they were born hurtling down an interstate highway. From the brisk opening stomper "Lonely Are the Brave" to the haunted, hushed "Twos and Threes," they're laden with the kind of introspection that seems to blossom organically from the solitary rush of leaving. The record grapples with the sort of questions that arise in their purest form in transit; questions of what to do with the miles and years we've got left in our bodies, of where we ought to take ourselves before our time is up and what we ought to leave in our wake. On "A Road is Not a Road, It's a Metaphor," vocalist Christopher Stryker contemplates those long gone builders of the roads he drives; how they must have been striving for something beyond just the physical reality of the dirt and tar beneath their feet. Roads are just disguises for a larger want, just as the physical way becomes a vessel for an intangible metaphysical journey. "My life is just a segue, but it's the only way I know," remarks Stryker. We're only alive for a brief journey between unknowables, so we'd better choose well the way we take.
Barefoot on Bumblebees have matured their sound into a force that wrestles with the toughest stuff with an ineffable air of humility and sincerity. An LP that wouldn't sound out of place amongst the Elephant 6 catalog, Everything Shiny Is New is one of the biggest, bravest, yet most honest indie-folk records you'll hear in a while. It's narrowly sneaked in to become one of my favorite records of the year and I imagine it'll stay with me long into the next.