Whether he’s touring, writing and recording, or releasing records, near enough every year seems a busy one for Andrew Bird. 2012 has felt like a particularly assiduous year for him, though. It all seemed to kick off back in March when he dropped his latest album, Break It Yourself, which satisfied most of his fan base, if not lulling those not regular to him into a disinterested state. Nonetheless, from there he was touring (as he always seems to be), dropping in on Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon on the way, contributing songs towards compilations, and releasing a few EPs here and there. Bird’s newest release–Hands of Glory, a companion piece to Break It Yourself–can’t help but seem like a slightly exhausting prospect after all this.
While all the recording and so forth might be exhausting for Bird himself, exhausting might not be the right word for Hands of Glory, though, especially considering it’s teamed with Break It Yourself, which was a notably relaxed record for most of its runtime. For the most part, Hands of Glory is fairly relaxed, which could simply be down to its modest set-up. With acoustic instruments in hand, Bird and his bandmates gathered around a single microphone for these songs here, recalling the days of Bird’s Bowl of Fire where he was skipping through hotpot jazz and calypso rhythms.
But those records–Thrills and Oh, The Grandeur–were recorded almost fifteen years ago, and back then Bird seemed to have a much looser and openly fun approach to his music (which is often a consequence of playing the music of those genres described). Bird is older now, and while I don’t want to accuse him of becoming bitter and cynical with age, there’s certainly a large part of that sprightly spirit missing from Hands of Glory. Sure, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s “Railroad Bill” has plenty of joyful gusto to it, complete with infectious whoops, but other than that, one might accuse Hands of Glory of having more in common with Bird’s first record: the dry and cold moments of Music of Hair.
Again, though, that might seem a bit misplaced, as there’s certainly enough to like about the “Three White Horses” and its nine-minute counterpart “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses.” The former version creeps along with pulsating bass notes and low crooning voices singing the song’s title, while Bird laments, “Don’t dismiss it like it’s easy/ tell me what so easy/ about coming to say goodbye.” The other is a sprawled out version of the original, where Bird mixes his usual pizzicato and slow-motion swoops, and adding in a few well-placed prickly melodies throughout the busy backdrop. Both will sit nicely in Bird’s catalogue and while they aren’t game-changing (even in Bird’s own world), they’re still examples of how consistent Bird’s own work is.
The majority of Hands of Glory is devoted to covers, though, and while Bird already has plenty of fine covers in his catalogue (“Don’t Be Scared”, “Trimmed + Burning”, “The Giant of Illinois”), his efforts here are something near enough lacklustre and uninspiring. If you’ve heard Bird and his band cover an original folk song on record before, then you’ll have some idea as to what to expect. Most are acoustic affairs, jangling along pleasantly enough if not drifting into the background a little too easily. His cover of The Handsome Family’s “When That Helicopter Comes” has an unusual dark wash over it (mainly due to the echo on Bird’s voice); “If I Needed You” bobs along nicely with that aforementioned touch of Music of Hair-esque violin; and lyrically “Something Biblical” resembles something not far off an original Bird song, albeit not as engaging. It’s nice to skim over and hear once or twice, but returning to Break It Yourself feels more rewarding.
It’s actually Bird’s cover of his own song that sits above the rest here. “Orpheo” slows down the original Break It Yourself track to a casual amble, stripping it of all the jittery movement. It’s not quite as big a change as “I” to “Imitosis” was, but it still catches me off guard every time I listen, and when the first verse drifts away, I keep expecting to hear Bird bust out the energetic and rustic reel from the original. The track may well be indicative of how Bird should take it for a while: for the most part, the slow, thoughtful approach seems to suit him best.