What happens when a band loses its lead singer and principal songwriter? The obvious thing would be to disband. But sometimes, when the band members enjoy each others’ company and share a musical connection, it might just be a chance to reinvent. The classic example of this is when, after the suicide of vocalist Ian Curtis, the surviving members of post-punk Joy Division reformed, for better or worse, as dance pop New Order.
This is the kind of situation that the members of local folkie weirdo band Dirty Bird found themselves in when their original lead singer, Amy Nickol, left the band and moved to Hawaii. Rather than completely reinvent their sound, band members Megan Kay and Nikki Miller took the opportunity to step up their efforts as songwriters.
Dirty Bird’s music has a sprawling, homemade quality to it. Miller plays guitar and keyboards; Kay, mandolin and violin. The other members are Jenn Bowen on electric bass and guitar; Jordan Morrison on drums and percussion, including xylophone, and additional vocalist Kristina Lyons. Everybody sings. The instrumentation and arrangements are folksy, as are the loose vocal harmonies, but there’s a definite rock ’n’ roll pulse that runs as an undercurrent through the music.
Rather than use the traditional rock band methodology for coming up with working titles—“The New One,” “The Other New One,” “The New New One,” and other variations of the theme—Kay and Miller initially label their songs numerically: “Megan 1.0,” “Megan 2.0,” “Nikki 1.0,” “Nikki 2.0” and so forth.
“Marlon Brando,” formerly “Megan 1.0,” with its bittersweet chorus that begins, “I could’ve been a contender, now I’m just a pretender”—a nice allusion to On the Waterfront—is Kay’s ode to the actor.
“It started when I was 15, and I just really liked the way he looked,” she says. “But then it became about the idea of not living up to your potential and becoming disenchanted with everything and moving to an island. Just buying an island and moving there.”
“Megan 2.0” is part of the grand tradition—“Every Breath You Take” comes to mind—of creepy stalker songs masquerading as love songs. The song is based on a news item that Kay read of a man who, possibly inspired by a scene from Back to the Future, decides to frighten and attack a woman he desires and then return to the scene of the crime to “rescue” her. In the news story, the woman recognized the man and had him arrested. In Kay’s song, the extra twist is that the woman enjoys the attack. The opening line of the song is “I know the way you walk home.”
Morrison calls the song “Megan 2.0, double the craziness.”
It’s a nice surprise that a band that seems so fun and homespun has such disturbing lyrical content.
One of Miller’s songs, “There You Are Again,” is performed a cappella (with handclaps). The repeated refrain, sung by the whole group like an antagonistic family sing-along, is “There you are again; I just can’t avoid you, even though I want to.”
“That song isn’t about anyone in particular,” says Miller, “except maybe one person.”