Album Review: The Ruralists — ‘The Birth of Birds’

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I’m new to Iowa (well, I’ve been here almost 18 years, but New Jersey only has a much more reasonable 21 counties to comprehend, dammit), so I had to look up where Sioux Center is to get a sense of where the Ruralists hail from. It’s further north than Sioux City (which I have heard of) but not as far north as Sioux Falls (which I think is actually in South Dakota). It’s no wonder that the (also Sioux Center-based) record label that released 2018’s The Birth of Birds, the Ruralists’ first full-length, is named Northwest of Nowhere.

It’s also incredibly appropriate for an album that feels for all the world like Canadian post-rock from a decade or so ago, albeit with a deeply, honestly Iowan twist. There must be something about living in the great white not-quite-so-North that causes an artist to open their heart to the question of just what music can do, if you live with it in the dark long enough.

The contemplative and heady lyrics, too, are like stumbling on a lost Sunset Rubdown record, though perhaps more visceral and less ethereal. Tracks like “Sky Full of Birds,” “Newborn Skin” and “Kid Memory” offer the keenest sense of this. “Aren’t we more than our lonely old hearts?” the band asks on “Sky Full of Birds,” and “Newborn Skin” has the most delicious moments of relentless drums before dropping the wall of sound for simple, near-solo vocals.

“Eggs” does this, too, while also being easily the strongest and most elegant and beautiful nod to the overarching bird theme of the record. A metaphor as relentless as the drumming, the tune imagines hatchlings who ought to “jump right back inside and pull the shards of shell back over their pretty little heads,” even while singer and primary songwriter Luke Hawley refuses to do so: “I know how I’m always shouting about the end of the world, sky falling down,” he sings. “You would be too if you would only pick up your head and look around.”

The Birth of Birds is the most Iowan of albums, with vocals that almost (but never quite) embrace the near-twang of the distinctly Iowan flavor of Americana that infuses the state’s most prominent offerings. The Ruralists sound like someone took Spencer Krug and William Elliott Whitmore, twisted them together into a fuse, and lit it.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 263.

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