Posted by: dan | February 9, 2009

machinations and palindromes

Dan: Well, this is unexpected. After years in the darkness, Andrew Bird has suddenly become a name to drop amongst the musical literati. We’ve been long-time admirers and have had his latest release Noble Beast on pre-order since it’s announcement. With his new-found popularity, does it live up to expectations?

Ben: February 9th 2004 heralded one of the most amazing gigs I have ever seen. I’d bought tickets to see Clem Snide at King Tuts in Glasgow, a band I’d been really eager to see since hearing Your Favorite Music two years previously. The warm-up act was a quiet guy who’d been milling about in the crowd before the gig started, who quietly tuned his instruments on the darkened stage before tapping a few pedals and playing a long, slow note on his violin.

Thirty minutes later, I was besotted with Andrew Bird. I pounced on him, got him to sign my ticket and bought Weather Systems – his then current album the next day.

If you’ve heard that album and those that follow it, you’ll understand how rare an artist Andrew is. He carves out these great delicate soundscapes largely comprising of violin and his amazing whistling, half of which are instrumentals. The other half have amazing lyrics, at once both incredibly tender and demanding. He’s a loner is Andrew, but he knows he’s got something special. Traditionally, the lyrical tracks pull people in and the instrumentals, far from being something skipped over, become deliberate pauses of reflection before the next idea.

Dan: Noble Beast is not something that will grab your attention straight away. The strength of Weather Systems lies in its ability to grasp you from the start and demand your full attention, so you can hear every subtle nuance of the violin’s strain and the deeper meaning of every lyric. Noble Beast is not that powerful. It’s quite content to let you listen on your own terms. The first time you hear it, you’ll wonder where on Earth all the hooks are. It seems as though there’s nothing to sink your teeth into, nothing to get a grip on. The Andrew Bird of previous albums seems to have been laid flat, and all the music has just seeped out, not leapt out.

But that’s almost the point. By not creating the sweeping gestures present in his earlier albums, he allows your ears to do all the work. It does take a few listens to really tune in, but once you do, the aural landscape is vast and detailed. The hills and valleys of the drums, guitars and violins create the perfect environment for the Anonanimals drawn to life by the lyrics and whistles. Soon, you’re picking out every beautiful note, and understanding why Bird is emphatic with choosing words for their sound as much as their meaning. They complement the music perfectly, creating an amazing soundscape that does punch nearly as hard as he’s hit before. But they’re not really punches, they’re closer to a creeping feeling that sneaks around you and holds you tighter and tighter, so with each further listen, you find yourself doubting why you doubted on the first playthrough.

That’s not to say it’s without fault. At fourteen tracks, it seems a little stretched. It’s definitely a lot to take in at once, and it is a little bleak at times, offering very little different or new. Which is when the doubt comes back, but fortunately, it doesn’t stick. With the next track, you’re away again, in a new field, with Andrew carving a new wind from the violin, and creating a new creature with his lyrics. Noble Beast could be regarded as his first ‘new’ album, as both The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha revisit tracks or patterns from Weather Systems, exploring them in new ways. Noble Beast doesn’t, with all tracks being completely new. There’s nothing to draw your attention back to his other work other than his style. And it’s all the better to hear for it.

Ben: I worry.

Andrew’s suddenly getting a lot of interest and people are naturally going to gravitate towards his latest offering. Now, I like Noble Beast but it is not a ‘proper’ Andrew Bird album. It’s too many songs of the same tone, too obviously produced. His earlier work feels like it was just him in an attic with a decent microphone recording these intimate little songs because he needed to whereas Noble Beast feels like someone’s given him money to go into a proper studio where he doesn’t have a say in the production.

I want to like Noble Beast more than I do. Some songs do make my heart dance like a member of The Polyphonic Spree but so many of the tracks feel, well, dull. Useless Creatures, the bonus disc that comes with the limited edition, is a recognition of the studio kow-towing of the album proper but manages to go in completely the wrong direction. Rather than Andrew doing the three-minute instrumentals that pepper his previous albums,  you get ten minute experimental tracks which do not feel like Andrew Bird at all. It’s overcompensation, an unnecessary way to make a bonus disc for a limited edition.

I reiterate that I don’t think it’s a bad album, it’s just not a particularly great one. Andrew feels more like a troubadour than an artist which doesn’t sit right at all.

The packaging – especially for the swanky limited edition – is amazing, mind.

Do, please, be interested in Andrew. He’s a great artist. If you’re coming to him fresh of the bat, go and buy Weather Systems and The Mysterious Production of Eggs, then come back here. You’ll thank me.

Recommended tracks:
Anonanimal, Effigy. We both agree those are the ones to go for. No separate lists this time.

Want to dig further?
Official website: http://www.andrewbird.net/
Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Bird
Link to buy Weather Systems (because you really, really should): [hmv.com]

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Responses

  1. Great interview chaps. I’ve only picked the album up yesterday and managed a quick couple of listens. I understand what you mean about the grand gestures. I mean, I thought Armchair Apocrypha was a move into the more studio sound (the loss of Kevin McDonnel from proceedings, and the inclusion of indie-jet-set singer Fiona Apple) but maintained the powerful gestures (Heretics, and the Imitiosis – or “Capital I”), in the way “Fake Palindromes” and “Sovay” had previously on The Mysterious Production of Eggs.

    I find it interesting that you draw upon Weather Systems as the Andrew Bird Benchmark, if you will. It certainly is the most intimate, and first proper solo recording. The 8-minute film on the recent editions of the disc shows you the barn he recorded it in. But Andrew Bird has the deft ability to create records of astounding scope whilst still maintaining his identity. Even back when Music of Hair and Thrills came out his lyrical style was coming through on tracks like “Nuthinduan Waltz”.

    I think perhaps it could be said his success is making it difficult for him treat making an album as simply as before. Even if he has complete freedom to make one, I would find myself going out of my way to be more experimental to keep my sound fresh. I don’t know. This has turned into an essay, guys, sorry.

  2. That’s what I find odd – he’s suddenly got investment and he doesn’t know what to do with it. Andrew’s best when he’s left alone to do everything himself, I think.

  3. Yeah. I suppose it’s a wonderful thing about him though. He’s always drawing from influences, and having creative people around him (The number of players on this record I think is as high as it was, if not higher, than on The Swimming Hour) sort of dilutes the Andrew Bird concentrate. Leaving him unable to…concentrate. It’s all conjecture. As long as he’s enjoying himself I suppose. I do really like the album now, though. It seems that, like on Armchair Apocrypha before it (with “Cateracts”) there’s an Andrew Bird song with a lyric I wasn’t expecting, if you know what I mean. I’m referring to Anonanimal “I know this one I know this song, I know this one, I love this song!” followed by a guitar break which wouldn’t sound out of place on an American Music Club record.

    He did start playing guitar in 2004. That’s clearly had an impact. Have you heard the acoustic version of “Heretics”, just him a guitar.


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