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Music Review: Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha

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It's an unjust world that doesn't hail Andrew Bird with parades and midnight fetes.

Nine years ago or so, when the Chicago-based violinist and songwriter formed Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, I nearly wrote him off right then and there. At the time, Bird, a Suzuki-trained musician who claimed to have barely heard any rock music at all, ever, was a hot-jazz violinist somewhat in the mold of the great French player Stéphane Grappelli and a sometime member of swing revivalists The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Given that the neo-swing revival lasted all of two years, and my patience with it considerably less time, I was disinclined to give Andrew Bird a free pass.

With The Bowl of Fire, Bird put out Thrills (Rykodisc, 1998) and Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc, 1999), two albums which I received as basically updated museum pieces, kind of neato like a garage-built replica of a Model T Ford, but like a Model T replica more curiosities than accomplishments. His archly retro songs and arrangements were entertaining amalgams of ragtime, hot jazz and swing, Weimar-era cabaret, Eastern European folk music, and other similarly unfashionable influences, but their appeal (for me, at least) stopped at the eardrums. The albums seemed to sell passably well, he built a small and dedicated fanbase, but for my part I had my fill of Andrew Bird pretty quickly. (Full disclosure: I was working for the label that put out Bird's first three albums. As if that makes me any more patient with nonsense.)

And then it all got weird. Bird's third album went in what you might call a completely unexpected direction. I suspected it might be getting interesting when, one afternoon, I was instructed to find a Hohner Beatle bass on short notice for Andrew to make use of in the studio (luckily for me, Manhattan is sick with Beatle basses for rent), and my suspicions were borne out when he delivered his third Bowl of Fire album, The Swimming Hour (Rykodisc, 2001). Gone were the hot jazz, the Hungarian folk music and the two-step beats. Gone were the one always-arched eyebrow and the sense that every note was part of some elaborate in-joke.

Instead, Andrew Bird had learned in his own way to rock.

But, being a classical music junkie and polymath, Bird didn't just sit down and pen a raft of "easy" by-the-numbers garage rock songs and dress them up with electric violin and Beatle bass. No, no no. Instead, Bird sat down and listened to what must have been the entire history of rock and roll music from Elvis up to Pavement, and then went off and encapsulated that history in one neat and quirky package. From the clattery Ray Charles jump blues of "How Indiscreet" (which featured a Raelettes-style backing chorus) to nods to Latin music, Burt Bacharach chamber pop, that Weimar cabaret again, it was a dizzyingly accomplished leap forward.

Every song still featured his signature violin, but it appeared in a thousand disguises – distorted, plucked, and echoed, and his light and mellow voice became a secret weapon as he slyly intoned little stories about rest stops and mistaken identity. It was rock music, yes, but coming from a wholly original place and sensibility that had little to do with the blues, Chuck Berry, Zep or the Stones. In short, The Swimming Hour was a smart and original album of marvelous songs played in a marvelous fashion, and I thought to myself, "no way that Andrew Frigging Bird is gonna top this."

Boy, was I wrong. Having gone solo starting with 2003's Weather Systems (Grimsey/Righteous Babe), each of his subsequent albums has been better, deeper, more mature and masterful than the last. His songwriting has become more confident as he has developed his own voice – his own genre – that nods at but does not rely on anything else that's been done before. Ever. His lyrics have become sharper, blending keen observation with poetry and Tin Pan Alley wordplay, and he has become (check this out) a master whistler.

Andrew Bird's latest album, Armchair Apocrypha (Fat Possum, 2007) was released in March to… thunderous silence. I don't get it. Andrew Bird has made the album of the year, an absolutely breathtaking tour de force of beautiful and brilliant… something… pop? I don't know what it is… and the only press I'm seeing is in the usual places that review indie-rock (Pitchfork, The Onion). No ticker-tape, no guest stint coaching the vocal gymnasts on American Idol, and it's a crying shame.

Bird created Armchair Apocrypha with the help of electronic-music experimentalist Martin Dosh. Dosh's influence seems mainly to be in the way that most of the productions are big as Western vistas, full of nuance and texture and sweeping motion, even when they are quiet as whispers. When Bird takes full advantage of his singing voice – a light, agile tenor not too different from Jeff Buckley's – or his multifaceted violin, or the whistling that sounds more like a Theremin than something human, and sets these monstrous talents off against Dosh's expansive productions, the effect is breathtaking. When from time to time, the electronic flourishes intrude a little more, as with the canned shuffle beat on "Simple X" or the storm of drums that ends "Armchairs," it's usually to the song's advantage. (But not always; "Simple X" is probably the weakest track, relatively speaking, on an otherwise stellar album.)

Somewhat like David Byrne (whom he resembles in eyebrow and cheekbone), Bird's lyrics are full of wordplay and detached observation that seems to come from a wry weariness, taking on the persona of someone who's seen enough to know that he doesn't want to see any more. On Armchair Apocrypha, disaster seems to lurk just underneath every surface. You find yourself grooving to "Heretics" well before you figure out that the chorus runs, "Thank God it's fatal," and the album-opening "Fiery Crash" seems to contemplate the titular tragedy in order to ward it off.

Bird even delves obliquely into politics for what I believe is the first time with "Scythian Empires," which pulls together three millennia worth of Middle East conquests and their subsequent fiascos over a gently driving beat built on acoustic guitar, plucked violin, and that ever-present Greek chorus of Bird's otherworldly whistling:

five day forecast bring black tar rains and hellfire
while handpicked handler's kid gloves tear at the inseams

their Halliburton attaché cases are useless

while Scotch-Guard Macintoshes shall be carbonized

now they're offering views of exiting empires
such breathtaking views of Scythian empires

Scythian empire
horsemen of the Russian steppe
Scythian empire
archers of an afterthought

routed by Sarmatians
thwarted by the Thracians
Scythian empire

kings of Macedonia
and the Scythian empire

Halliburton attaché cases, by the way, are fantastic.

No matter whether Bird is punning on, well, birds on "Spare-ohs" and the clever album art, or contemplating mortality and the game of Operation on "Dark Matter," every shot hits the target dead center. This album is as career-defining and as one of a kind as Pink Moon, Tapestry or Dark Side of the Moon, and I'm frankly shocked that music this good – even if it's not immediately comprehensible as "pop" – isn't burning up the adult alternative radio charts, being written up in Rolling Stone, and generally being lauded as great.

Today, I'm at the point where I'm tempted to run to my nearest music store, order a 30-count box full of Armchair Apocrypha and run into the streets thrusting the album into every passing hand. It's that good, that different, that lovely. Not to everybody's taste, maybe not your particular cup of tea, but objectively a great, great album.

Andrew Bird has come a long way since I rolled my eyes at "Ides of Swing" and "Candy Shop" from Thrills and Oh! The Grandeur. Before I said it because I still doubted his ability to pull off anything he wanted; now I'm saying it because practically nobody makes two albums this good in a career (even while I hope that this is not true): no way is Andrew Frigging Bird gonna top this.

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About John Owen

  • Thank you so much for writing this. I have been breathing this album for weeks and just can’t get over how brilliant it is. Like you with your 30 boxes, I actually got drunk one night and forced it onto the bartender as thanks.