The year 2009 was a good one for hip-hop trio No Bird Sing. After rapidly gaining local clout with a well-received eponymous debut, the group was named one of First Avenue's Best New Bands. But with its new disc "Theft of the Commons," No Bird Sing -- MC Joe Horton, guitarist Robert Mulrennan and drummer Graham O'Brien -- makes a conscious move away from its early sound to a vastly harder-edged effort.
Recorded live in a barn with zero samples, "Theft of the Commons" is a scorched-earth affair. "We were burning the bridge as we were crossing it," Horton, 28, said over beers at the Muddy Pig in St. Paul. Minor glitches and hiccups were purposefully left on the tracks. "I don't want the record to be a castrated version of the live show," he said.
The LP is a genre-bender, blurring the lines between aggressive rock and socially conscious hip-hop. It's an angry listen, with Horton's brooding flow constantly warring with consumerism and sociopolitical power dynamics.
"This record came from me being really frustrated with the way we organize ourselves as human beings," Horton said, name-checking lefty thinkers Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky as influences.
But there's little preaching on "Theft," and Horton's abstractions leave the intellectual heavy lifting to the listener. "It's why people wrap Christmas presents," he said, likening the wrapping paper to an emotional connection, while the gift is the message.
There's a smirking take on a capitalists' version of heaven on the guitar-marching "Afterlife Insurance," an apocalyptical approach to cultural apathy on the Heiruspecs-ish "Outcasted," and a postmodernist lament on the supremely dark, piano-tinged "River Blue Truth."
Horton hopes all that lyrical weightiness will lend staying power to the album. "I could rap about dead kittens and make people feel sad," he said, but instead he opted for intellectual bonding. The end product is an aesthetic bruiser -- think Aesop Rock's arty allegory backed by a rock band and channeled through Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent."
If the dense philosophizing and genre-hopping sticks out on "Theft," Horton is quick to defer some credit to celebrated St. Paul rapper Eyedea, who died last year from an accidental overdose. Horton says Larsen helped him develop as a rapper and as a thinker.
"Those three years [of friendship] were a crash-course in freestyling," he said, calling Larsen one of the best freestyle rappers ever. Horton also credits Larsen with sparking his interest in philosophy and quantum physics. The friends would routinely stay up until 7 a.m., pontificating on the works of Niels Bohr and Fritjof Capra. Eyedea's reluctance to be bound by rap conventions was also inspirational to No Bird Sing; the late MC had side projects that spanned from rock to free jazz. When Larsen died, Horton says he lost not only a great friend, but a teacher and a safety net. "Not only did he mean a lot to me as an MC and a person, he helped me be OK being myself."
With "Theft of the Commons," Horton has dedicated a record to Larsen that he genuinely believes in. "I feel really good about it; I feel Pitchfork good," he said, referencing the taste-making music website. "I feel if Pitchfork heard it, we'd get a 7 or above." Horton cites friends Peter Wolf Crier and hip-hop brethren Doomtree as Pitchfork-buoyed local acts that seized national attention by framing themselves as viable national acts.
In the age of blogs and MP3s, there's no reason to harbor a flyover complex. But for Horton, artistry trumps marketing. "I'm not that good of a salesman," he said. "I just really believe in this record."