Throughout the centuries, our fine feathered friends have inspired great works of art in all disciplines: dance (Swan Lake), film (The Birds), poetry (The Raven), and prose (Jonathan Livingston Seagull). But a whole album about crows? Never. At least, not until earlier this year, when Seattle singer-songwriter Levi Fuller dropped This Murder Is a Peaceful Gathering, his set of nine originals inspired by these shiny black devils.
Fuller became fixated on corvus caurinus shortly after he relocated from Boston in 2003. "There are a lot more of them here," he observes. "And they are one of those animals that, the more attention you pay to them, the more interesting they are. They're almost human in a lot of their behavior."
This Murder... explores its subject from myriad angles, including the bird's-eye view (sorry!) of "Crow Meeting" and the crazy first-person narrative "Crow Lady." On "Bread," the singer admonishes a winged scavenger for trying to eat something bigger than its little noggin, while "Eyeballs" is about ravenous fowl plucking out your peepers.
Fuller has a quiet but pointed voice, and a distinctive guitar style, relaxed in execution yet clearly informed by skill and practice. "Some people have commented that I sound like a sloppy Leo Kottke, which is a huge compliment," reveals Fuller, who plays the Sunset Tavern on Tuesday, September 5. "I would never think to compare myself to him, but it's nice to hear someone else say it."
"My playing and songwriting are informed by a wide variety of influences, from John Fahey to Fugazi," he adds.
The album was recorded at Engine Studios in Chicago, under the direction of Brian Deck, whose credits include Iron and Wine, Modest Mouse, Fruit Bats, and Califone. It was that last one that brought the two men together. "Brian is a producer I've admired ever since I first heard Califone," Fuller says. "Roomsound is one of my all-time favorite albums."
The disc features performances by guests Gavin Gregory (Water Kill the Sun) and Gillian Lisee (Fruit Bats, Orso), but the majority of it was played by Fuller. In addition to stringed instruments—guitars, banjo, lap steel, and bass—he also took his turn on toy piano, kalimba, and even the singing saw.
"My first instrument was alto saxophone, in sixth grade," he discloses. "I learned a lot of basic music theory and chords when I was a sax player, and my teacher was good enough that I could apply all that to most other instruments as I went along. I could at least make some sort of noise come out that wasn't completely horrible, even if it wasn't exactly what a pro would do."
In addition, Fuller designed the letterpress CD jacket, featuring relief images of crows in flight. "I went to art school. The only degree I have is in 3-D fine arts. But even before that, I was into printing and the tactile quality of objects, and presenting things as beautifully as possible." Which This Murder... does, both outside and in.