There are albums where you can make a sport of playing “spot the reference” — and then there are albums that practically dare you not to. “Rare Birds,” the latest from singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Jonathan Wilson — who played co-producer and Hollywood Babylon sherpa to Father John Misty and is also a guitarist in Roger Waters’ band — falls into the latter category, which is not to say that the album isn’t strikingly original, beautifully crafted and filled with powerful and memorable songs. With a lush rock sound that recalls recent albums by The War on Drugs, Wilco and others, “Rare Birds” uses familiar sounds to take you on a totally new journey — and it’s an album in the classic sense, where the songs add up to more than the sum of their parts.
While “Gentle Spirit” had a narrative based around the revival of the early 1970s “Laurel Canyon” folk-rock-ish sound, this one incorporates more contemporary sounds along with the vintage ones. And yes, some of those vintage sounds will ring a bell: The album’s first song, “Trafalgar Square,” features a honking fat guitar riff and chanted female backing vocals straight from Norman Greenbaum’s 1970 hit “Spirit in the Sky.” Wilson’s work with Waters (he recently toured with the former Pink Floyd frontman and contributed to his “Is This the Life We Really Want?” album) rears its head on several tracks, most prominently on “Me,” which features a sax solo and some haunted vocals straight off a “Dark Side of the Moon.” Elsewhere, the melody of the album’s title track vividly evokes the melody from Gordon Lightfoot’s unlikely 1975 hit single “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”; there are flashes of Love and late-1960s Kinks in the character study “Miriam Montague.”
Yet those elements, along with vocal contributions from Misty — fittingly, on the surprisingly graphic “40 Hairflips” — Lana Del Rey and Lucius, are minor details in the overall tapestry of this sprawling and beautifully assembled album. Wilson’s reedy voice brings the narrative, but it’s his skill as a songwriter, producer and instrumentalist that gives this sprawling opus — its 13 songs average six-and-a-half minutes each — its epic scope and flow.
“Rare Birds” is a must for fans of The War on Drugs, and for any rock fans who believe the album is a lost art. “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find,” he sings on “49 Hairflips.” Mission accomplished.
“Rare Birds” is out Friday, March 2 on Bella Union Records.