This year’s Cornerstone Festival was the first one I had attended in five years, and as such, there were some notable differences between my experience this year and my experiences from years past. Perhaps the biggest difference was that my primary focus this year was not on the music side of the festival, but rather the film side. As such, the number of concerts that I attended can be counted on two hands — a mere fraction of the concerts that I’ve seen in the past.
Even so, as I made way through that paltry number of shows, there were still things that I was hoping for. Namely, a band that would come completely out of the leftfield, that would leave concertgoers picking their jaws up off the muddy ground — or at least scratching their heads full of rarely washed, nappy, campsite hair.
In years past, that bill was filled by such acts as S.S. Bountyhunter, Danielson, Fine China, Soul-Junk, and Psalters. For Cornerstone 2007, it was State Bird. And for a while, during their late night show full of insanity — Native American stylings, conga line — it was like those five years had never occurred. I was back in those Cornerstones of yore, and I couldn’t wait to run back to my campsite and grab all of my friends to herd them back to the Encore Stage.
The obvious comparison point for State Bird would be Daniel Smith and his various efforts, due to Jared Riblet’s nasal vocals (which are most certainly an acquired taste — and if you’ve acquired it, are by turns charming, hilarious, and rousing), the unpredictable song structures and arrangements (featuring a battery of instruments that resembles less a traditional pop group and more a toybox upended on the floor), and lyrics that are replete with Christian imagery as far removed from traditional praise and worship music as can be.
It’s that last bit that keeps drawing me back to this album. Like Smith (and his peers, Sufjan Stevens, Half-Handed Cloud, The Singing Mechanic, and Soul-Junk), State Bird’s lyrics are, at least at face value, probably too Christian for the indie crowd — and probably too weird for the Christian crowd, who might view State Bird’s “Sunday School lesson” style of songwriting with some skepticism, as if songs like “Where the Water Met the Land,” “Stop My Cryin’ and Start the Pleasin,’ ” and “Behold the Lamb (By Way of the Sea)” were written with tongue firmly in cheek.
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure, at times they’re a little cheeky and precocious, but State Bird are well aware of that in their music. There’s never a trace of irony when State Bird launches into one of their motley arrangements. For example, the title track, in which State Bird suddenly turns into the most ragtag marching band you could imagine, all rickety guitars, kazoo, handclaps, shuffling percussion, and Riblet’s warbly voice declaring “When I’m awake I push You away/Because I think that I can do so much better/And oh how we are/We’re doing stupid things just to get attention.”
It’s difficult not to get up off the couch and start marching right alongside them, much like the crowd in the Encore tent during that warm Cornerstone night — and not get a little teared up at the childlike whimsy and forthrightness that pervades these twelve songs.
And that’s to say nothing of the album’s more subdued moments, such as “Have I Forgot” and “In the End (The Wedding),” which move along the same lines as Sufjan’s quieter moments (think Seven Swans rather than Illinois). During these songs, the album veers well away from the initial quirky impressions, revealing Marching Thru the Wilderness to be a good deal more nuanced — and consequently, more rewarding — than either the indie or Christian crowd might be willing to give it credit for.