Two Dark Birds Make MAGNET A Mix Tape

Big life changes including having a child and moving from New York City to the Catskills have proved to be more than enough inspiration for Two Dark Birds frontman Steve Koester. That’s probably why the band’s sophomore full-length is called Songs For The New—and why the album’s sound is more hopeful and outdoorsy-sounding than the quintet’s prior release. Of course, Koester also credits some of his own favorite artists—many of whom show up on the mix tape below—with helping shape the sound of the record. Songs For The New is out now via Riot Bear Recording Co.

“Black Blessed Night” (download):

The Band “King Harvest”
It’s nearly impossible to distill down to 10 songs the disparate influences that contribute to an album, but for Songs For The New, “King Harvest” (or, more particularly, this video of “King Harvest”) is definitely the right place to start. After we’d recorded and toured our first album, I was living in Brooklyn and feeling pretty fried. A decade-plus love affair with NYC had come to a close, and I was ready for some clean air and country living. This video was like a talisman. It wasn’t the almost telepathic musical communication between the band members, nor was it the power of Richard Manuel’s voice (like somebody carrying something heavy and important up a mountain). In fact, what got to me most was the setting—that studio in the woods. I would watch it over and over again, dreaming of trading cement for pine. Shortly thereafter, my wife and I had a baby girl and moved to the Catskill Mountains. And that was the beginning of Songs For The New. Video

Karen Dalton “Something’s On Your Mind”
This album was made in 1971 at Bearsville Studios just outside of Woodstock, N.Y. (probably a stone’s throw from where the Band’s studio cabin was). It captures a lot of the elements of the “Catskills sound” that I love: acoustic and electric instruments intermingling, folk and soul feels combined. At that point in time, there were a bunch of bands up here working this same territory; Dylan and The Band, of course, also Van Morrison (with his Tupelo Honey and Moondance records) and many more. Karen Dalton was better known as a straight-up West Village folkie, but the bassist Harvey Brooks got her into the studio to record a rock/soul album called In My Own Time, and the results were mind-boggling. This is my favorite song from it (written by Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service). Daltons’s delivery is heartbreaking, as perfect a combination of vocal tone and lyric as I’ve ever heard. At times, she’s so far behind the beat she seems to be hanging out in the next measure. We’ve been covering this one live lately. Video

Waylon Jennings “Waymore’s Blues”
I was alone in the wilderness and a voice spoke to me. And that voice was Waylon Jennings! When we finally did move out to the country, this sort of music started to make a lot of sense. Dreaming My Dreams became the soundtrack for long drives down empty highways. I love some of the slicker “cocaine country” that Wayon and Willie made later in the ‘70s, but DMD has a bit more of a ruff-and-tumble feel, plus great lyrics and occasional moments of almost Orbison-like operatic singing. Video

XTC “Yacht Dance”
XTC’s English Settlement was a touchstone while we were recording and mixing Songs For The New. None of the members of Two Dark Birds knew each other as teenagers, but it turns out that we were all separately obsessing on this album from various corners of the country. XTC combines pastoral and acoustic elements with “world music” (sorry, hate that phrase too, but you know what I’m talking about) and art rock in a way that really resonates with us. This album was made in England in 1982. We live in the USA in 2011, but we’re kinda aiming to do the same thing. Video

Nina Simone “Suzanne”
Nina Simone released two albums at the end of the ‘60s where she covers a lot of the big folkie guy songwriters of the day: Dylan, Cohen, Harrison, Gibb. She uses the songs as a launch pad for her own genius (as she always did), but what really resonates with our band is the intermingling of the folkie stuff with more syncopated rhythms. It’s something that we—particularly with the input of our drummer Jason Mills—aim for. The studio version of this song is from the brilliant To Love Somebody LP, but I chose the live version here because Nina is just so bold in both voice and body. Video

Bill Withers “Use Me”
Bill Withers and his band are another consistent touchstone for Two Dark Birds. The music is direct, uncluttered and groovy. It combines singer/songwriter elements with flat-out funk in a seamless way. Drummer James Gadson deserves a throne of gold for his work on this track alone. Video

Nick Drake “Way To Blue”
I’d loved the Pink Moon album to the point of obsession for years and years, but had been less enamored with Drake’s first two “lusher” studio LPs. One day, Don Piper (who plays lap steel in Two Dark Birds) was talking rabidly about Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. I got them out and proceeded to fall into a rabbit hole for about six months; they were the only albums that made sense to me. I’m particularly fond of Robert Kirby’s string arrangements. When we added strings to a couple tracks on our album, I asked our arranger, Chris Carmichael, to use Kirby’s strings as a reference point. He nailed it pretty good. Video

Fleet Foxes “Crayon Angels”
Judee Sill is another singer that Don Piper turned me on to. She was a ‘70s folk singer with a big Jesus fixation that seemed to manifest itself in her music in a way that was both spiritual and romantic bordering on sexual. In short, everything you could ever want! I highly recommend the song “The Kiss,” but I chose this Fleet Foxes cover because I also really dug the band’s first album. A great collaboration across the sands of time. Video

Fleetwood Mac “Beautiful Child”
We love Fleetwood Mac. I know it’s hipper to say that you’re into the Peter Green era or Bob Welch era, but I’m talking heyday Mac. I’m talking Lindsey and Stevie. I could have chosen any number of Mac tunes from their brilliant trilogy—Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk—so filled with pop-rock perfection. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie just may be my all-time favorite rhythm section. They know how to make a pop song move across time. But, instead, I chose this little Stevie Nicks gem from Tusk, because it has a particular resonance with “Song For Clementine” off our album. The lyric and sentiment of this song was something that I was trying to play off of with our own song. Video

Richard & Linda Thompson “Night Comes In”
The Richard & Linda albums are another big reference point for Two Dark Birds. I love how this band (on this song, “Calvary Cross,” “Shoot Out The Lights” and others) plays down-tempo songs that still manage to groove. It is a “slow burn” like no other. Also, I love his guitar solos; always like a little story in their own right. Video

Townes Van Zandt “Rex’s Blues”
My favorite TVZ album is High, Low And In Between, and I was listening to it a lot while writing Songs For The New. Everybody always talks about Townes’ lyrics—which are, of course, absolute poetry—but then they kinda apologize for his voice. I love his voice. It’s plain, direct and the perfect delivery system for his songs. “Rex’s Blues” is not on High Low, but it’s my favorite Townes song. There’s a better, more uptempo studio version that I couldn’t find on YouTube, but this one is pretty great, too. I’d like to get some of the lyrics engraved on my tombstone. Unless I come up with something better. Which means I’ve got my work cut out for me. Video

David Crosby “Music Is Love”
Yeah, yeah, I know. I used to be a punk-rock Crosby hater, too. But, for all his ridiculousness (or maybe because of it?), the Croz is able to go to places that other songwriters fear to tread. I know we’ve all heard “Guinnevere ” a few too many times, but, really, next time it comes on the loudspeaker at Target or wherever, check it out. It is both stunning and radical. As far as “Music Is Love” is concerned, all I’ll say is that I used to think this was preposterous as well, then I realized he was right: Music is love. Now, we cover this song. Frequently. Video

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