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Wednesday, April 18, 2007 10:01 pm

The brain of Bird

So enchanting, you won’t notice how smart he is

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Andrew Bird Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum)
Untitled Document Was there ever a man more aptly named than Andrew Bird? Fine-boned and gracile, with a long, elegant nose and alert dark eyes, he has a distinctly avian beauty. Despite his fragile appearance, he’s a tireless performer, migrating from tour stop to tour stop with the freakish vigor of his feathered brethren. He’s a sickeningly gifted musician, a classically trained violinist who also happens to play guitar and sing better than the vast majority of his peers. Plus, he’s a helluva whistler. (No joke: You’d swear he has a flute lodged in his larynx.) Most important, like all great composers (and birds, too, for that matter), he makes music-making seem inevitable, as if his body were some kind of ingenious ventilator designed to take in stale, ordinary air and expel gorgeous melodies. It isn’t easy — talent without discipline seldom amounts to anything worthwhile, unless, of course, you’re a bird, in which case you have several million years of evolution to thank for your mad skillz — but it has to seem easy. The brain might have done the grunt work, but it had better butt out once the lights dim because, as W.H. Auden put it, “people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” No one is more adept than Bird at balancing the demands of sense and sensibility, which is all the more impressive given his obvious egghead tendencies. Fond of arcane references culled from physics, biology, neurology, history, and philosophy, he’s almost hyperliterate, his lyrics peppered with advanced-vocabulary stumpers such as “coppice” and “chaparral” (both types of thickets, in case you’re wondering). He might not be the only indie-rocker around to contrive clever couplets about dark matter and biological determinism, mitosis and osmosis, Scythians and Thracians and Sarmatians, but he’s one of the few who don’t come off as insufferable prigs.
Whereas most smartypants lyricists are obviously compensating for something — usually tone deafness — Bird wears his intellect lightly. So enchanting is his music, in fact, you probably won’t notice at first just how damn smart he is. Frankly, you don’t need to. The most striking feature of Armchair Apocrypha, his seventh album, is its consummate musicality, its absolute command of all the sonic artillery. Aided by his touring drummer Martin Dosh, an acclaimed electronic musician in his own right, and a handful of guest musicians, Bird crafts crepuscular minisymphonies out of painstakingly looped and layered strings, vintage synths, glockenspiels, female harmonies, and the occasional theremin. As with its predecessor, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, there’s a good deal of guitar on Armchairs, and it’s often loud and scuzzy; at moments (“Plasticities,” “Darkmatter”) the sound verges on cerebral power pop, of the sort that the New Pornographers might proudly claim. Other songs are harder to classify. “Simple X,” co-written by Dosh, combines experimental hip-hop clatter with bass clarinet and a pentatonic violin figure. “Imitosis” is a version of Weather Systems’ “I” recast as a needly funk/tango hybrid. “Cataracts” and “Scythian Empires” are delicate ballads that showcase Bird’s underrated tenor (a bit like Rufus Wainwright’s, only not as florid). The album’s emotional centerpiece, though, is “Armchairs,” a multipartite avant-soul rhapsody that brandishes all the big guns in Bird’s arsenal: a dreamy, Debussyesque string prelude; Bird’s supple falsetto; a crescendo of keyboards tickled by rolling cymbals; lyrics that shift from elliptically tender (“I was a cartographer/Of the tangles in your hair”) to enigmatically angry (“Some day/We’ll get back at them all/With epoxy and a pair of pliers”). A microcosm of the album, it’s seven minutes of controlled dynamics, vatic utterances, inventive orchestration, and apocalyptic visions, and, yeah, it all seems easy.
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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