I first met Kirby Jayes in some end-of-tour haze at Beloit College in Wisconsin. An upperclassman who had booked me for a party, he immediately struck me as forthright and enthusiastic, a natural storyteller and skilled assessor of his immediate situation. Besides using these gifts to book killer shows, I soon discovered Kirby did time in several bands, eventually manifesting his skill-set in solo singer-songwriter form.
As Kirby Jayes the performer, he self-released a tape, “716 Emerson,” named in tribute to the on-campus home and venue where he and so many others curated memorable nights of music and art. Of course, the ensconced enclave of collegiate living must eventually end, and Kirby and bassist Linden Holt moved on to the concrete pastures of Pittsburgh.
In western Pennsylvania, the duo rechristened their project under the collective name Birthrates. Their debut album, “Act Right,” features Jayes’ low baritone and acoustic guitar, combined with Holt’s melodic basslines and equally affecting harmonies, in an impressive collection that searches and yearns in a most enjoyable way.
Not surprisingly, the songs on “Act Right” mostly describe the ennui and discovery that plague and bless twenty-something adults. Lead track “Internet Drugs” is a first-person tale of that very millennial habit of scoring via TOR. What sets Jayes’ lyrics apart from typical whoa-is-me tales is his refusal to trade in excuses. The characters in these songs own their failures at least as much as their triumphs.
“Maybe You Should” shrugs off collegiate dependency, singing, “I don’t drink Natty Ice and I don’t need Adderall.” Another view on the pains of maturity, “Nice Collared Shirt” opens with propulsive percussion and the lines: “Put on a nice collared shirt/get your ass off to church [….] you will do it for Jesus/you will do it for me.” For all its nervous energy, however, the song still ends with a determined insistence that the line be towed.
The closer, “Quitting,” details physical and spiritual resignation, before turning to question its own nihilism and slowly building toward musical redemption. As the tempo accelerates, promising absolution, the final lyrical motif surfaces, ruminating: “Oh I quit/oh I’m giving up/it’s plain to see and it will always be/that I will never be enough.” In this, the album’s fate is sealed, all premonitions and declarations of failed steam, moving toward nowhere. Yet “Act Right,” in spite of its lyrical desperation, betrays a sense of hope and future. That future looks especially bright for Birthrates, and I look forward to seeing where the band goes from here.
“Act Right” officially hits the streets on September 17.