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Bird lays Eggs ¬ó and takes flight
Apart from fame and riches, former Squirrel Nut Zipper Andrew Bird has it all. He is to the violin what Jimi Hendrix was to the guitar, which is to say not merely a virtuoso but also a visionary. In Bird’s delicate hands, the violin is only a vehicle, the most convenient means by which to manifest his genius. When he’s not playing supernaturally beautiful melodies on it, he’s plucking it, strumming it, running it through various electronic gizmos, and rendering it virtually unrecognizable. But Bird is more than a brilliant violinist. He’s also a brilliant singer, songwriter, guitarist, and (don’t laugh until you’ve listened) whistler. He also happens to be quite comely, in a consumptive-19th-century-poet kind of way.
As long as you’re not prejudiced against the disgustingly gifted, Bird’s latest full-length, The Mysterious Production of Eggs,¬†is sure to delight. As the title suggests, it’s a whimsical album, from the Jay Ryan drawings that adorn the lyric booklet to the lyrics themselves, which reference dewy-eyed Disney brides, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” mah jongg, and MX missiles. But whimsy doesn’t have to mean flimsy. Like Ryan’s cartoons, whose bright surfaces belie their dark content, Bird’s songs are a sublime mixture of silly and serious. They might sound goofy at first, with their glockenspiels and whistling interludes and elaborate rhyme schemes, but that’s all part of the plan. “Many of the songs are about childhood under attack by shadowy forces that want to measure, commodify, and buy and sell things which can’t be measured,” Bird said in a recent interview. “Measuring Cups,” one of the album’s many highlights, is a heartbreakingly direct variation on that theme: “Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game/Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain/We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name/Put your backpack on your shoulder/Be the good little soldier/It’s no different when you’re older.”
Comparisons of Snowglobe with the late, great Neutral Milk Hotel are inevitable and not entirely unfair. After all, describing a band on its own terms is much harder than linking it to better-known bands, and rock fans are, for the most part, lazy subliterates who skim over fanciful adjectives anyway, hence the obligatory “RIYL” (“recommended if you like”) tag at the bottom of press releases, marketing one-sheets, and record reviews. Like NMH, Snowglobe favors trumpets, musical saws, and other instruments not usually associated with rock bands. Snowglobe even relocated briefly from its Memphis, Tenn., home base to Athens, Ga., the East Coast headquarters for the Elephant 6 collective. But let’s face it: In the Aeroplane over the Sea, the second and final NMH release, was one of the greatest rock albums of the 1990s. Seven years after its release, its fuzzed-out folk and religiopsychosexual epiphanies sound as singular as ever. Doing the Distance,¬†Snowglobe’s second (but, let’s hope, not final) full-length can, in this lofty context, only disappoint.
But just because Distance isn’t as great as a great band’s greatest album doesn’t mean that it’s a failure. In fact, many listeners will no doubt prefer it to Aeroplane, which is noisier, messier, and rife with disturbing metaphors. Snowglobe’s principal songwriters, Tim Regan and Brad Postlethwaite, who also sing and play various instruments, make excellent use of the band’s eclectic palette. Pedal-steel guitars, violins, cellos, flutes, Mellotrons, and yes, trumpets and musical saws create a lush setting for the co-frontmen’s dreamy psych-pop compositions; although the arrangements sometimes verge on busy, the overall mood is charmingly chaotic.