A classically-trained violinist with the kind of expressive voice that draws comparison to Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, Chicago native Andrew Bird is also a gifted arranger, inventive multi-instrumentalist and quirky songwriter with a unique musical worldview. In the mercurial Bowl of Fire and on his own, Bird has made music that manages to sound both old and experimental, ranging from the Eastern European folk and New Orleans jazz influence of the group’s early records to the baroque and spacey chamber pop of his most recent solo work.
Bird made his bow as an ad hoc participant in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, adding violin to the retro-swing revivalists’ 1996 breakthrough record, and it’s a useful frame of reference. Thrills is likewise a strange trip through various old musics, from the jump blues of “Glass Figurine” and “Cock o’ the Walk” to the sullen cabaret of “Pathetique.” Bowl of Fire proves a sturdy vessel for Bird’s tunes, with Zippers James Mathus (guitar) and Katharine Whalen (vocals) joining Kevin O’Donnell (drums), Josh Hirsch (bass) and Jack Fine (trumpet). The manic instrumental “Depression-Pasillo” and Charley Patton’s “Some of These Days” showcase their versatility.
Oh! The Grandeur again draws from such traditions as spare jazz-combo backing and rollicking gypsy folk, but Bird’s lyrics make these songs more than well-executed genre exercises. Newcomer Colin Bunn adds some blistering guitar, especially on the strident opener “Candy Shop.” The fiery “Vidalia” is a tribute to the onion that shares its name, and the woozy “Tea and Thorazine” (“I can tell by the way you take your infusion / You’ve spent some time in a mental institution”) and salsa-inflected “Coney Island Shuffle” are standouts. The CD booklet is an elaborate creation of cartoonist/graphic artist Chris Ware.
With the addition of Memphis boogie and garage rock to the mix, The Swimming Hour is Bowl of Fire’s most varied and rewarding record. Moving away from the old-timey feel of the first two records, this has a more decided rock ‘n’ roll influence, although Bird’s songs don’t give themselves easily to any sort of classification. “Two Way Action” is a classic on-the-road-again number with searing electric violin, and “Too Long” is a hillbilly stomper, avec tuba. New arrival Nora O’Connor spices up duets like “11:11,” an ode to superstition and fate, the elegant blues “Headsoak” and the Ray Charles-ish singalong “How Indiscreet.”
Although Bowl of Fire was firing on all cylinders, Bird made the strange and beautiful Weather Systems on his own (with Lambchop’s Mark Nevers and BOF cohorts O’Connor and O’Donnell helping out) in the recording studio in his barn in rural Illinois. The first ghostly whistled notes of “First Song” (which mines the poetry of Galway Kinnell) reflect that sense of solitude, but the mood is anything but alienated. The violin is still Bird’s axe of choice, but here it is strummed, plucked, looped and doused in all manner of sonic textures, resulting in the dreamy “Lull” (“I fascinate myself when I’m alone”), the semi-funky “Skin” and the moody, classical-flavored title track. Without the band behind him, empty space becomes an element in the music; the songs’ structures are loose and they don’t follow so much as drift into one another, helped along by recurring instrumental themes. A stirring cover of the Handsome Family’s “Don’t Be Scared” closes out this cohesive, hypnotic (and, at 34 minutes, too brief) gem.
The two Fingerlings are live recordings culled from a couple of years’ worth of touring. They reveal Bird’s transformation from a bandleader to a self-contained music-making machine. Almost as essential as his studio work, they contain otherwise unreleased gems like (on the 2003 disc) the tongue-in-cheek “Gotholympians” (“My pitiful sorrows have seen more tomorrows than yours / My rain really pours / At least more than yours”). Newer songs are presented as works-in-progress, and older songs are reinvented as Bird distances himself from the musical dilettantism of his earlier records. Music of Hair, recorded in the mid-’90s and re-released in 2004, showcases his facility for with traditional fiddle music and the odd turn of phrase. Interesting but inessential.
“If we’re all matter, then what does it matter?” Bird asks on The Mysterious Production of Eggs, a Dr. Seuss-by-way-of-Dr. Strangelove classic. With a combination of playful surrealism and cold scientific observation, the songs bring up mortality and destruction an awful lot, but they don’t seem overly concerned. The jittery “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” (“You’re what happens when two substances collide / And by all accounts you really should have died”), the mesmerizing “Masterfade” and the post-apocalyptic fable “Tables and Chairs” are highlights, but there is much here to enjoy. “Fake Palindromes” is almost power-pop, driven by thunderous drums and guitars, and “Skin Is, My” is the instrumental from the previous record complete with a catchy vocal. The production is lush and detailed but the songs are strong enough to withstand all the fuss, making this a most ambitious and accomplished record.
The Ballad of the Red Shoes, musically speaking, is a 12-minute CD of violin instrumentals; it’s part of an out-of-print audio-visual project Bird undertook with his mother, who is a print-maker.