Bird of Youth’s debut, Defender, was reportedly shaped over a period of several years, and the band’s careful patience resulted in knotty, intelligent, and verbally dense songs, which reverberate with unironic emotional expression and wordplay. Frontwoman Beth Wawerna writes the kind of long songs that stretch across five or six minutes, requiring repeated listens to fully digest.
But Defender is often as musically anemic as it is lyrically vibrant. There are clear exceptions to this imbalance, like the rousing bounce of “When My Wings Hit the Shed,” with its ebullient keyboard hook, but many of these songs are words with not enough music to back them up. Opener “One Hand Able” is a confident, slow-burning introduction to the album, but it’s also kind of a slog, wobbling along with no notable increase in energy.
Produced by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, Defender has an unobtrusive, easily appreciable charm, despite feeling musically underwhelming at times. It comes pre-endorsed, with an impressive pedigree of artists vouching for Wawerna’s talents, including guest spots from members of the National, the Wrens, and Nada Surf. Of these outside collaborators, Okkervil River is the most obvious comparator; songs like “A Boy Well Dressed” are clearly influenced by that band’s method of slowly peaking through the piling up of individual elements, and “Stop Sharing” works off a spunky, spat-out chorus with Sheff himself barking out vocals in the background.
Vocally, Wawerna often recalls early-aughts groups like Azure Ray, who often had similar difficulty matching their evocative vocals with equally strong music. Yet despite all these comparisons, the songs on Defender are all her own, identifying a gifted songwriter whose words beg for stronger backing.