It was one year ago this month that the music community mourned the loss of David Lamb, the talented and thoughtful multi-instrumentalist who made up one half of Brown Bird, due to leukemia. Now Lamb’s life and musical partner MorganEve Swain is releasing the final chapter in the band’s compelling story, Axis Mundi, a lyric she found in his notebook that refers to the point where heaven and earth connect.
The album begins with the harrowing opener “Focus”, as Lamb’s voice hovers like a spectre. “Tethered to the cure, I focus on the pain,” he laments. “Transformation comes, tempered by the flame./ And if my flesh should fail, devour me within. / May then my soul prevail, free to roam again.”
By the time the song ends, listeners are absorbed into Lamb and Swain’s antiphonal singing, its resounding resilience, and we are mostly just glad to be able to share a few more moments with them. And when you lose someone or something you care about, that’s all you can ask for - just a few more moments.
Thankfully, there are many great moments on the record. There are ample dashes of the Middle Eastern influence that came to characterize the band’s later works. Take “Bannerman”, a song that was written just before Lamb fell ill, which features a swirling sandstorm of hypnotic harmonies and tightly interlocked riffs. The track is followed by a surf-rock informed “Aloha Senor Mano” and it’s clear the group never stopped stretching and growing.
Both musically and philosophically, Lamb was certainly a seeker. The son of a preacher, he applied an academic zeal to his spirituality, simultaneously digging into deep thinkers like Thomas Paine and Omar Khayyam. Musically, they expanded early pigeonholing from a “folk” group (really meaning “American folk instruments”) to a much more global definition of the word.
They were also big metal fans. When one hears polished rock songs like “Pale and Paralyzed” and “Ephraim”, it’s tempting to dream of an alternate ending to the story where the band is playing large rock festivals. The former features spellbinding imagery, with some of the band’s best lyrical storytelling. The latter incorporates an anthemic accordion and seeks to find “paradise in the midst of this hell, if we tilt our heads just right, and let our shackles go.”
Putting the record together quickly following David’s passing, Swain found catharsis in the process. It does not sound like “letting go”, but giving back - sharing their last musical moments and solidifying the band’s already-impressive place in our collective hearts. To that end, there are tender tunes here, too. The album’s penultimate track is “Tortured Boy”, a song Swain wrote in their first moments of dating, now impressed with new meaning to her lithe lyrics.
Finally, the album comes to rest with “Avalon”, a 46-second song Dave wrote for MorganEve and presented to her in December. Amid other compliments, the final verse rings, “You’re a huntress, and a healer, and a holder of hands./ And your heart is the Avalon that I seek for my end.” To state the obvious, it makes for an emotional end to the listening experience.
The record was originally conceived as a victory record, an album Brown Bird would tour on once Lamb was in better health. And in a way, Axis Mundi still makes for a fitting final coda. Lamb and Swain found their counterpoints in each other, and shared their connection with us through Brown Bird, making their spiritual bond manifest through their music. Now, no longer tethered, the songs, Brown Bird, and Lamb are free to roam again, their mythos fading into the brightness of an infinite horizon.
Words by Brian Hodge of Visible Voice