NOT JUST FIDDLIN’ AROUND Andrew Bird

The
virtuoso violinist returns with an unadulterated masterpiece.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Andrew Bird’s facility with a violin makes it far too easy
to overlook his brilliance with the instrument – not to mention his formidable
songwriting skills. Since first getting us to take notice of him as a featured
sideman with the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the late ‘90s, Bird’s solo work has
taken us from Mitteleuropa gypsy
flavors and Suzuki-method virtuosity to Stephane Grappelli jazz, Caribbean
island flavors, rustic Appalachian fiddle, sea shanties and contemporary
looping wizardry.

 

But those geographic destinations, as well as the genre and
era touchstones, only tell the most obvious part of the story. Take the lovely “Danse
Caribe,” for instance, off Bird’s twelfth and latest, Break It Yourself. Over the course of five minutes, Bird gets his
violin to play the role of a lonely pedal steel and mimic the eerie warble of a
Theremin, but he’s only getting warmed up. Soon he’s morphed his violin into a long-breathed
keyboard instrument like harmonium, then turns to percussive pizzicato for a
banjo sound that’s shadowed by steel drums until you can’t tell the two apart. As
the Graceland-like calypso beat drifts
toward the song’s fadeout, he throws off an Appalachian reel that slips
effortlessly into soaring virtuoso trills and runs.

 

As mind-blowing as the range of sounds is that he pulls from
his violin, what’s more impressive is that none of them come off as showy and
that they all serve the song. And like “Danse Caribe,” the 14 tracks here rank among
some of the best Bird’s ever done. Recorded to Tascam 8-track in the barn where
many of his songs typically first take flight in a solo setting, Bird for the
first time invited his band – Martin Dosh on drums, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker
and bassist Mike Lewis – to collaborate “instinctively” over a week of
rehearsals that wound up instead as a recording session and provided the tracks
with a palpable live feel.

 

Unlike the studio-polished tapestry of his last few studio
recordings, that unfussy vibe runs throughout this record and imbues the music
with the natural surroundings in which it was recorded. Whether it’s the contemplative
tango “Near Death Experience Experience,” the love-gone-sideways pocket
symphony “EyeonEye,” a twangy lullaby like “Sifters,” or the processed chamber
folk-pop of “Desperation Breeds,” you can sense the openness of Bird’s barn
studio more than any other record since 2003’s Weather Systems.

 

That’s key, and not just because you can picture evening
fireflies and big sky storm clouds, hear the crickets (literally, on the
instrumental LP-closer “Bells”) and the nearby Mississippi flowing past. It ties music into
nature, and that is Bird’s thematic home turf. On the opener “Desperation
Breeds,” his violin’s pizzicato beats and long, flowing lines turn to trills
that flutter like windblown butterflies over sun-dappled fields of wheat. With
that image circling in your mind, Bird establishes a favorite narrative theme
where science – often in the form of technological innovation — and human
endeavor merge until it’s practically impossible to distinguish between them.
Here, in this global warming “era without bees,” it’s desperation that
mankind’s hubris breeds as often as innovation, a reminder that the products of
our too-often shortsighted ingenuity indelibly shape us as well as our
environment.

 

But as bad as our relationship with nature is, we don’t fare
much better in our relationships with each other: “Lusitania” uses two
shipwrecks (the sinking of the Maine, too) as relationship metaphors; the
narrator in “EyeonEye” toys with the idea of breaking his own heart to test
Shakespeare’s “tis better to have loved and lost” dictum; on “Give It Away,”
the narrator urges a lover to hide in the hay with him away from the world and
its “worthless currency,” where the “foxes and field mice make their dens.”

 

But as often is the case on Break It Yourself, even our own inner monologues aren’t to be
trusted. The simple melancholic whistled melody and minor guitar chords of
“Lazy Projector” take to task “that forgetting, embellishing lying machine,” our
memory. It’s the same “drives you mad” faculty that the slashing fiddle strokes
and accusatory plucking in “Orpheo Looks Back” warn against. Even the island in
“Danse Caribe” – a metaphor for autonomy – is anything but positive despite the
sunny musical climes.

 

And that’s Bird’s best trick of all; tackling heady topics and
dark facts in the language of deceptively
simple folk-pop songs that make us smile more than weep. By the last two
tracks, he has taken us far afield only to show that we’ve never really left
our natural state. The processional “Hole In the Ocean Floor” reads like a
dream of various musical components that drift together so naturally you never
really notice any of the transitions or, for that matter, that the earth is
dying and we’re a part of the decay. And with the three-minute instrumental
closer “Belles,” Bird lays us down on a pillow of gossamer tones where bells
and violin and crickets are all indistinguishable, a paean to the close bonds
between our music and nature’s. That’s territory that few explore more
beautifully than Bird.

 

Andrew
Bird’s North American tour kicks off April 9 in Seattle. Full itinerary at his official
website.

 

[Photo Credit: Cameron Wittig]

 

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