- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

Cliff Usher is a lifelong Virginian, having grown up in Vienna before enrolling at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Even so, the young songwriter owes a good deal of gratitude to Valencia, Spain, where he spent his junior year studying abroad.

“Going abroad was a very transformative year for me,” he explains. “I know that’s a cliche, but it really does change you. It gave me a lot of inspiration to draw from.” While studying Spanish at UVa., Mr. Usher also toured the town’s barroom circuit with the Business of Flies, a local band specializing in “grungy dance-rock.” Living in Valencia enabled him to test his songwriting capabilities in isolation, and he returned to UVa. in 2006 with a wealth of new tunes.

Birdlips, a musical duo comprising Mr. Usher and keyboardist Lindsay Pitts, builds off of the acoustic-fueled material that took root in Spain. The two mix organic instruments with looped percussion, creating a folk-tinged sound that is simultaneously intimate and expansive.

“We’ve been trying to avoid the ‘folk’ label,” Mr. Usher cautions, although he understands his band’s resemblance to artists such as Nick Drake. “Our debut album does have elements of folk instrumentation - banjos, acoustic guitars and upright bass - but I never felt like the songwriting or production was very folksy.”

Birdlips’ first recording, “Cardboard Wings,” is an earthy and atmospheric album, not unlike Emmylou Harris’ acclaimed “Wrecking Ball.” Mr. Usher sings in a rich baritone, turning his own travelogues into well-crafted songs with the help of his band mate. Several other friends lent their help to the project, which was financed partially by a grant from UVa.’s Independent Student Arts Project Fund.

“We recorded the album at Monkeyclaus Studio in Nelson County,” Mr. Usher says. “It’s basically a barn surrounded by mountains, which is really beautiful. Inside, they have all this vintage equipment. A lot of the microphones we used on “Cardboard Wings” were Russian mikes from the ‘60s.”

“Some Kind of Death,” “Tire Chains” and “When the Last Light Goes Out” are perhaps the most striking tracks on “Cardboard Wings,” which swoons with vocal harmonies and melodic turns that belie the musicians’ youth. Such promising craft recently attracted attention from National Public Radio, which made “Tire Chains” the network’s Song of the Day in late July.

Birdlips will make its D.C. debut this weekend, followed by two additional September shows in Virginia.

Catch Birdlips’ first area show at the Black Cat on Sunday. Tickets are $8, and doors open at 9 p.m.

Old 97’s co-founder goes solo

Murry Hammond has been a fixture of America’s country-rock landscape for 15 years. As the bassist for Old 97’s, he spent the 1990s popularizing a musical hybrid that drew equally from country, pop and rock ‘n’ roll. Today, the band continues to be a leading light in the alt-country scene, although Mr. Hammond also has found time to indulge his other interests.

Trains, religion and nostalgia are the chief components of Mr. Hammond’s first solo effort, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’m On My Way,” which the songwriter released earlier this year. Absent are the muscled guitar riffs and galloping percussion of many Old 97’s songs. Instead, Mr. Hammond adopts a measured, reverent pace on his solo debut, whose songs are sparsely ornamented by acoustic guitars and stand-up bass.

While growing up in Boyd, Texas, Mr. Hammond often traveled with his father to Fort Worth, where the two would visit the train station to watch the locomotives depart. Mr. Hammond was just a boy at the time, but those experiences still shaped his art.

“My mom made a little scrapbook for her kids,” he recalls, “and the earliest drawings in those scrapbooks are my attempts to draw trains. They’re all I drew and apparently all I thought about. Plus, I was a fan of Johnny Cash, so everything combined into one ball. I liked trains and had the soundtrack for it.”

“I Don’t Know Where I’m Going” features the same chug-a-lugging guitars that Johnny Cash once used, a steady sound that conjures up images of steam engines and railroad ties. Songs like “Next Time Take the Train” and “Riding the Rods” make that connection explicit, yet their lyrics tackle wider themes. A longtime Christian, Mr. Hammond entwines his album’s railroad imagery with religious overtones.

“This isn’t a gospel record,” he clarifies, “at least not in the sense that I know gospel. But if you’re going to have a record where good and evil are fighting each other, it’s important to bring your concept of God into it. It’s not technically gospel, but there’s a lot of that on there.”

Mr. Hammond’s twangy vocals are cloaked in reverb throughout the record, which adds a resonance to even the most intimate of songs. “You Will Often Meet Obstruction” nearly resembles a church hymn, with Mr. Hammond’s voice echoing atop a droning harmonium organ. Even so, the songwriter’s Christian ideals come across more clearly in his business ethics.

Project Mercy is a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in the shantytowns east of Tijuana, Mexico. Mr. Hammond donates all profits from his album sales to the organization, which uses the money to build houses for Mexican residents. When all the costs are tallied, exactly 234 sold albums will yield enough capital for one home.

“I don’t need to be a solo rock star,” Mr. Hammond concludes. “I think it’s a little creepy, honestly, if you don’t think beyond yourself. I don’t wanna be creepy, and I want these CDs to make a bit of a dent in things. Even if it’s just a scratch. A scratch can get a lot done.”

Murry Hammond begins his first solo tour this week. He’ll stop by the Iota Club on Monday Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’m On My Way” will be on sale to benefit Project Mercy, which can be visited on the Web at www.ProjectMercy.net.

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