The Hideout is an excellent venue, cozy and intimate in all the right ways, but Mimicking Birds’ music belongs in the wild. As the contemplative, astral-folk band built into another swirling cloud of guitars at The Hideout on Saturday, Aug. 9, it became clear that not only was the band in the wrong venue, but it’s still a long way from recreating the hushed but grandiose feeling of its recorded output.
Elemental and plaintive, the Portland, Ore. trio plays expansive, big-picture folk music that would feel more at home in an arboretum or an observatory than a bar. The band’s music examines the gulf between what Lacy dubs “the infinite and the infinitesimal,” and Mimicking Birds impressively communicate these contrasting arenas—at least on their albums.
On record, Mimicking Birds deftly create bustling ecosystems, but playing live, they fail to build convincing worlds.
Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock invited them as openers this year after signing them to his label, Glacial Pace, on the strength of Lacy’s early recordings. Despite sharing the stage with the reliably charismatic and memorable Brock, Mimicking Birds still feel tentative on stage.
Both the band’s self-titled and this year’s Eons have a homespun intimacy that evokes the campfire mysticism of Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and the rustic naturalism of Bon Iver, but the live incarnations of these songs feel thin.
Hypnotically precise and elliptical, Mimicking Birds create an orbit of tangled textures around Lacy’s central wisp of a voice. Lacy isn’t a traditionally charismatic singer, but his voice has a narcotic quality, and his lyrics possess an unusually articulate interest in science, oozing out with ease despite being surprising tongue twisters.
The morbidly romantic “Memorabilia” pushes this unwieldy couplet: “I’ll breathe one whole chestful of blood and into your heart I’ll live forever helping the beat.” “Wormholes” winds around the equally verbose line, “By lethal hands sifting through sands of nothingness and its never-ending expanse.” It’s to Lacy’s credit that these lines rarely stuff up the songs. Rather, they’re consistently smooth, sung in neat, undulating phrases.
The lyrics overall are unusually bookish, obtusely structured like William Faulkner’s prose and bursting with references to evolution and various scientific processes. The best parallel for the songwriting may be The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, if he were interested in Charles Darwin instead of 18th century mariner culture.
The sidling “Moving On” examines the passage of time through terraforming: “As the river forms the canyon walls with its weight/Same way the glacier scrapes shaving a new mountain face.”
The charred folk of “Remnants and Pictures” compares a faded relationship to eroded history, and “Owl Hoots” finds a simpatico connection between the natural and artificial worlds.
Unfortunately, though, this weightiness isn’t communicated in Lacy’s live performance. While he sounds mesmerizing and considered on the records, his voice just sounds peripheral and bloodless in person. That’s not to say there’s anything sloppy about the band. They’re almost too tight, with drummer Aaron Hanson constantly in the pocket ensuring that the tempo rarely rises above a saunter. That hyper-controlled backbeat just as often bridles the energy of the music as enhances it.
It’s hard to pinpoint what would make Mimicking Birds a more skilled live band. They’re not allergic to hooks, but even their most immediately melodic songs, like “Bloodlines” and “Burning Stars,” are more thoughtful than catchy, and the complexly florid music is the type of folk that could easily be underrated. If anything, the band is still figuring out how to create an experience rather than simply an imitation of its recorded sound. Mimicking Birds play an ideal star-gazing soundtrack, but their live show isn’t able to capture those celestial heights.