Andrew Bird


(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Music of Hair (1996), 6/10
Thrills (1998), 6.5/10
Oh The Grandeur (1999), 5/10
The Swimming Hour (2001), 6/10
Weather Systems (2003), 6/10
The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (2005), 7/10
Armchair Apocrypha (2007), 6.5/10
Noble Beast (2009), 7/10
Break It Yourself (2012), 5.5/10
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Chicago-based violinist Andrew Bird, who played with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, debuted solo at the age of 23 with Music of Hair (1996). Despite charming unpretentious folkish lullabies such as Nuthinduan Waltz and the showtune-like aria Pathetique, the bulk and the highlights of the collection are creative instrumentals such as the bluesy sleepy Ambivalence Waltz, the neoclassical melody mutating into devilish gypsy dance of Oh So Insistent, the droning elegy Rhodeaoh, the spirited and convoluted St Francis Reel and the subliminal jazzy Oh So Sad. The ten-minute Minor Beatrice is a fantasia that draws inspiration from diverse sources such as Petr Tchaikovsky's ballet music and dixieland jazz.

His albums with the Bowl of Fire (whose main pillar was jazz drummer Kevin O'Donnell) offer a brilliant mixture of vaudeville, dancehall music, jump blues, Appalachian folk, swing, and orchestral easy-listening, basically an extension of the aesthetic of Minor Beatrice. Harking back to the 1950s and even earlier, Thrills (Ryko, 1998) delivered both instrumentals and songs. The former include the breathless dixieland dance of Minor Stab and the frenzied polyrhythmic Caribbean dance Depression-Pasillo, but overall are outnumbered by the latter. The songs create a vaudeville show of sorts: the cabaret-style skit Ides of Swing, the feverish charleston rigmarole of Cock O' the Walk the jumping/swinging tune Glass Figurine, the polka-paced croon 50 Pieces, the bluesy ballad A Woman's Life and Love (sung by Katharine Whalen), the late-night rhumba of Eugene, etc. A rewriting of Pathetique for small ensemble and a "blacker" version of Nuthinduan Waltz (both inferior to the originals) sound a bit out of context in this nostalgia/revival tour de force.

The project retreated a bit from the nostalgia of Thrills but opted more strongly for the cabaret/musical kind of atmosphere on Oh The Grandeur (1999). That also meant a prevalence of songs over instrumentals. Vidalia, Candy Shop, Wishing For Contentment are witty and entertaining but overall the album is too much dejavu and too little creation. Beware is the grand ode that should represent the zenith of pathos. But only The Idiot's Genius displays the creative fusion of jazz, classical, ethnic and easy-listening that made Bird's previous records such a delight; and only the exotic instrumental Coney Island Shuffle (the album's standout) boasts the verve that made so many revival vignettes memorable.

The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc, 2001) presented a much more powerful, rocking band, with a loud electric guitar and Nora O'Connor almost stealing the show on backing vocals. The very first song, Two Way Action, is a garage-rock bacchanal, but the rest merges the sophisticated retro touches of the previous albums and the new vehement approach. The band runs the gamut from vibrant blues-rock (Satisfied) to dreamy folk-rock (11:11) and effervescent soul rave-up (How Indiscreet). Core And Rind even evokes Donovan's psychedelic jazz-rock of the Sixties. Despite the intentions, the band still tends to digress towards the nostalgic retro style: the grand aria of Waiting To Talk, the orchestral ballad with female choir Dear Old Greenland, the crooned bluesy ballad Why?, the Caribbean Mersey-beat ditty Case In Point, the trombone-paced ragtime Too Long and and especially the gallopping country-western rigmarole Way Out West. But the investment is still mainly in songs, with the instrumental parts a mere side dish.

The spartan mini-album Weather Systems (Grimsey, 2003) failed to introduce new elements, and in fact reduced the stylistic range of the previous album, but still offered the gloomy Tom Waits-ian meditation I and the Mark Kozelek-ian litany Lull.

Bird returned to the sound of the Bowl of Fire with the dizzying stylistic whirlwind of The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (Righteous Babe, 2005), a collection of elegant and catchy ditties that sound like the ultimate synthesis of the decade: Sovay (quasi-jazz phrasing over nocturnal drum brushes and tinkling piano), A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left (a witty catalog of vocal and instrumental violations of the rules of pop songwriting), The Naming of Things (the most regular melodic progression).
His songs mostly sound like detours of a career that does not want to grow up: the fairy tale Measuring Cups, or the hodge-podge of arrangements of Banking On A Myth, or Opposite Day, the ultimate joke, that sounds like the deconstruction of Beatles stereotypes.
Bird has un uncanny sense of how to remodel the old-fashioned (the bucolic whistling in the Donovan-esque Masterfade, the exotic merry-go-round of Fake Palindromes, the crooning and string counterpoint of Tables And Chairs) that he translates into sonic delight.
Will Oldham is the troubadour of alt-country, Jeff Buckley was the intimate psychologist, Devendra Banhart is the gentle psychedelic bard, Rufus Wainwright is the sophisticated popsmith. Andrew Bird is all of them at the same time: master of deeply-felt singing, master of layered arrangements, master of lyrical imagery, master of celestial melodies, master of the bizarre and of the subtle.

The balance between voice and music remains Bird's key assett on Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007). This is best demonstrated in the seven-minute piano-driven soaring ballad Armchairs and the catchy, XTC-esque Plasticities (violin, xylophone, theremin), but it ultimately permeates every philosophical ditty of the album, from the breezy Fiery Crash to the driving Dark Matter to the stately and frivolous Scythian Empires (perhaps the album's standout tracks). His fluent phrasing shines in Imitosis (coupled with Latin rhythm) and Simple X (coupled with skipping rhythm). The haunting violin-based instrumental Yawny at the Apocalypse is not only the proverbial cherry on the cake but also a mute epitaph on Bird's solemn vision. Having mastered both orchestration (courtesy of keyboardist Martin Dosh and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Ylvisaker) and voice, Bird's synthesis is more powerful than ever.

Noble Beast (Fat Possum, 2009), equally divided between songs and instrumentals, is austere, idiosyncratic, impressionist chamber-pop for traumatic experiences, crafted via a meticulous syntax of subliminal nuances. After the abstract raga-psychedelic instrumental overture Master Sigh, the transition from the poppy tune Oh No, that sounds like a guitar-based Elton John, to the lulling and evocative Effigy a` la Leonard Cohen (with waltzing violin lines and female backup vocals) comes through as the transition from a physical state to a metaphysical state. In a sense, the longer Master Swarm carries out the reverse transformation within a song, from its Indian-tinged initial hymn to the Caribbean easy-listening theme that follows. Not A Robot But A Ghost follows the opposite route: from effervescent Caribbean dance to astral swoon. The seven-minute instrumental You Woke Me Up juxtaposes a neoclassical pattern against a swirling Middle-Eastern pattern.
As far as the hedonistic, power-pop side goes, the retro-creative soundscapes and dynamics of Fitz And The Dizzyspells sets up a theater of memory for an audience of amnesiacs. The more meditative side of the songs peaks with the pensive Morricone-influenced country-rock vignette of Tenuousness and with the lengthy elegy Souverian that harks back to the odes of Jackson Browne.
The mixture of exotic elements and retro elements is responsible for Bird's creastive form of instrumental easy-listening music, as exemplified by Nyatiti, At the other end of the (instrumental) spectrum Bird ewven ventures into ambient music and musique concrete with the droning crescendos of the ten-minute The Barn Tapes. The nine-minute four-movement Carrion Suite, featuring Wilco's drummer Glenn Kotche and jazz bassist Todd Sickafoose, is much more psychological, a case of abstract post-industrial chamber ethnic jazz. Its harsher counterpart is the seven-minute Hot Math, a blend of repetitive minimalism and ethnic funk. The instrumental half of the double-disc, later released as Useless Creatures (Fat Possum, 2010), wins out. There are also the mourning cacophonous adagio of Dissent and the demented whistling concerto of Sigh Master. Each could be the launching pad for more ambitious albums.

By comparison with its lavish predecessors, Break It Yourself (Mom & Pop, 2012) has a more intimate and humble (almost bedroom) feeling. The collection, however, sounds like a hodgepodge of different tactics, from the mainstream folk-rock of the single Eyeoneye to the neoclassical ambitions of the eight-minute Hole in the Ocean Floor, from the world-fusion of Danse Caribe to the tragic tone of Desperation Breeds.

(Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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