Last summer, weeks before the release of the group's debut CD, Yes Nearby, I downloaded and fell in love with a catchy tune called "Tipi Baya" done by the Ypsilanti band the Ragbirds. Quirky and melodic, the track sounded like an outtake from some lost Paul Simon world-music experiment fronted by a clear, sweet voice that slipped and slid all over the charts in a perfectly controlled fashion. The poetry of the lyric was a little silly and sounded like a nursery rhyme, but the catchy chorus and the layers of mandolins, guitars, and percussion jumped from the speakers and made it impossible to get the song out of my brain.

When the CD finally came out, I discovered that "Tipi Baya" was no fluke. The twelve-song collection is like a well-worn suitcase covered with travel stickers of world-music styles: mournful piano ballads, African drums, Middle Eastern textures, a banjo tossed into the mix here and there, layers of strings and violins. But I did find out that the guiding vision, the stunning voice, and the intricate songs all came from front woman Erin Zindle.

More than just another pop-folk singer with a nice voice, Zindle somewhat recalls Natalie Merchant, but with a bit more power and a greater willingness to take risks. She'll grab notes and push the music over the line by bending the pitch or soaring off the edge with surprising little twists, her voice moving like a violin. If you listen closely, it's apparent Zindle is doing something rare and unique as a singer.

Zindle's voice alone would make the Ragbirds a band worth checking out. But lots more is going on. For starters, she's a pretty hot songwriter as well, although the insistent spirituality of her lyrics can get a bit annoying. "Adoration" is a long, Hindu-sounding Jewish spiritual chant that brings to mind some India-fueled hippie trip that doesn't stand up to repeated listening. A couple of her experiments don't quite hit on all cylinders, but when they work, look out. On "Holy Kiss," a song about God or a lost love (I'm not sure which) with just Zindle's voice and a grand piano, or on "Believe It," a song about faith and hope with a hypnotic beat and a wonderful accordion and snappy chorus, the Ragbirds just lure you into a distinctive and appealing musical world.

The live Ragbirds — with Randall Moore and Tim Dzieken on percussion, Adam Labeaux on guitar and vocals, Jeff Stinson on bass and vocals, and vocalist Zindle on an assortment of instruments, including violin and banjo — are a bit more of a jam band, open to soloing and stretching out beyond pop song structures off the CD. Their live shows work both as a showcase for the songs and as a soundtrack to inspire the dancers in the audience.

The Ragbirds headline the St. Patrick's Day show at TC's Speakeasy on Friday, March 17.

[Review published March 2006]