The Skygreen Leopards
Life and Love in the Sparrow’s Meadow


lenn Donaldson should wear a mask. Or a cape. The wild man of San Fran’s Jewelled Antler collective is a musical superhero. As a key member of J.A., Donaldson has had a hand in a mind-bogglingly diverse group of projects, ranging from the free drone of Thuja and the Blithe Sons to the pop leanings of Ivytree and the Skygreen Leopards. This year alone (and February ain’t over) has seen a release from the Franciscan Hobbies as well as the Skygreen Leopards’ (a duo with Verdure’s Donovan Quinn) Life and Love in Sparrow’s Meadow.

But quantity does not a superhero make. Despite their algae-like abundance, nearly every album involving Donaldson is fantastic. Life and Love in Sparrow’s Meadow is no exception—in fact, it ranks amongst his best.

It is certainly his most accessible. The ramshackle, sun-drenched pop of Sparrow’s Meadow will appeal to anyone with a lo-fi sixties pop bone in their body. Or anyone with a hunger for granola, dirty feet, and a nearby tambourine. Or anyone with a handful of hallucinogens and a big backyard.

That is to say: Sparrow’s Meadow will appeal to both the free-improv Thuja enthusiast and the Beach Boys fan. Instrumentation is sparse, pairing summer’s-day-on-the-stoop acoustic strums with a instrumental grab bag including banjos, dulcimers, ocarinas, hand drums, and shaken percussion. And despite it obviously being a pop record, the Leopards avoid verse-chorus-verse structure, opting instead for a looser approach. As a result, the instruments sound free, as if they lock into blissful song by accident. The songs don’t really end, rather the instruments fall out of step, and the songs, as a result, die.

The lyrics, delivered by Quinn and Donaldson in lispy, high-pitched moans, share this loose, improvised feeling. They sing as though they’re following a butterfly fluttering in the air. Dreamy and barely linguistic, the lyrics often lapse into lazy la-las and unintelligibility. This reviewer has the sense that often the next line is unknown until right before it is sung. This, of course, couldn’t be more appropriate.

Despite its seeming improvisation, both Quinn and Donaldson have deliver a number of wonderfully poetic images (“the supplication of fireflies,” “I’d like to make paintings of blind children, sell them to old women in flea markets in the evening,” “they’re the God’s men of the Paradise Lost, their guns ready for the holocaust”).

Lyrics center around five motifs: children, birds, labyrinths, the sun, and Christianity. These themes are the building blocks of the elliptical poetry of the album. Child plus Sun equals “Mother The Sun Makes Me Cry.” Bird plus Labyrinth equals “Labyrinth Windows.” Add Donaldson and Quinn’s drifting imagination to these suggestive scenarios, and the results are stunning.

The highlight is “Minotaur.” Here love is the Labyrinth, and the jilted lover is the trapped and deformed Minotaur. The song is enigmatic, but powerful. (Consider the following line: “He wishes he was a prairie bird, but instead he’s a butcher’s son, dreaming of painted, panther-eyed girls.”). The song combines a low-key acoustic guitar and a pensive frame-drum beat with an organ that first sounds funereal but then serene when Quinn and Donaldson wistfully beg us to “burn a candle for love.”

So score another one for Glenn Donaldson. And let us praise Mr. Quinn, who regrettably has been underrecognized in this review. Life and Love in Sparrow’s Meadow was clearly a group effort. But like the best Jewelled Antler albums, it sounds like the product of one sun-addled mind.

Reviewed by: Bryan Berge

Reviewed on: 2005-02-23

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