Album Review: Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire – The Swimming Hour (Reissue)

[Ryko; 2009]

The first snow of winter fell in Edinburgh the other day. And in an attempt to recreate past memories I stuck The Swimming Hour on as I went about my morning regime at a lazy pace. A few years back when I delved back into Andrew Bird’s back catalogue I became increasingly engrossed with his Bowl Of Fire work. His first album, Thrills, was a collection of hotpot jazz songs that could have slipped out of New Orleans in any of the past decades, while next album, Oh! The Grandeur, expanded further with calypso shuffle and tango waltzes all while making the jazz spicier and a little more frantic. But the third and final album with the Bowl Of Fire moniker stands totally separate. Despite still holding the jazz roots close and the band staying the same, The Swimming Hour stands high above the previous two records, refining every quality and executing every single note with such precision it leads to something quite exceptional.

Recently reissued on vinyl with new artwork from Jay Ryan, The Swimming Hour is gracefully remembered – though it’s never really been forgotten. If you’ve heard it, you’ll have most likely come familiar with it, spinning it countless times to relive the thrills (excuse the pun). If you’ve not happened to look back on Bird’s previous records then you still might well have heard something from it. Bird often throws “Why?” into his live sets and it still has the same deadpan charm (if not more) it does on record. On record you don’t get to see him ache to get the rhythm looped correctly nor stand stock still in front of the audience as he asks “why’d you do that?” but that’s part of the live charm he brings to his songs. On record it’s refined with drumming so concise you realise that Bird’s hooked up with players good enough to match his almost obsessive desire for perfection in music.

The perfect nature is present throughout, but the sound never streaks from too much shine; it’s merely the sound of five supremely talented musicians in unison, creating 12 separate masterpieces that infuse together to create something as sublime as it is exhilarating. On “Case In Point,” the marimba melds so seamlessly into the guitar it slips by you half the time, but when you listen in for it, it’s golden. “Way Out West” gallops by with Bird’s devastating lyrics before his electrifying violin solo comes into play with a sound that almost carries the voltage from the amps to your ears.

And then there are the untouchable songs: opener “Two Way Action” begins almost deviously on picked guitar over a scratchy hum before exploding into view like a Cadillac shooting across the highway from nowhere, carrying numerous hooks and the listener with it. Finding yourself snagged by this monster as it rushes by you, you won’t want to get off, even as it slows to a close in the final seconds. “How Indiscreet” takes the hot jazz that ran through the band’s veins and turns it up about 100 degrees, throwing in one of my favourite drums breaks ever set to record.

In retrospect this reissue isn’t absolutely essential, but it’s greatly welcome. Jay Ryan’s artwork is sketchy and light-hearted and is a fresh sight to cast your eyes upon in gatefold size. He draws his humour into the cover and linear photos – bringing the trees to life and adding bears – complimenting the almost jocular tone that runs through the album, amidst the exhilaration. Hearing it on vinyl is a treat for those who enjoy the wax and the audio has been tweaked to sound its most pristine. And that extra production does do the record some extras favours – I never really realised there was a glockenspiel playing on “Two Way Action,” nor did the full lyrical effect of “Fatal Flower Garden” hit me until I spun this on my turntable. But when you’re listening to something on vinyl the experience is different. Instead of ambling somewhere with music blaring through headphones, you occupy the same literal space as the music for its runtime as the needle hits the wax. Sure you can wander into other rooms when it’s playing, but why would you? When The Swimming Hour is playing you’d be mad to want to go anywhere else – you wait tentatively for each turn, each crescendo, each refined note to (ahem) bowl you over.

So when the snow starts falling, I have a habit of sticking The Swimming Hour on as it recalls to me times when I lived at my parents, still an impressionable student who had the glorious treat of a late afternoon class one day. The house was more than comfortably warm and a thick layer of fresh and crunchy snow had just fallen outside. Alone inside the house I jumped about playing air drums to “How Indiscreet” in my bedclothes, delaying stepping into the shower just to enjoy this record with my full attention. Since I’ve moved out I’ve never quite been able to imitate the same glorious kind of heat to literally lounge about in (damn these inferior heaters), but The Swimming Hour always sounds as fresh and enthralling as it did back then.

Though it’s not even been a decade since its release, I would happily get ahead of myself and place this as one of the most timeless records I’ve heard. Compared to Bird’s other records, it most definitely sits atop his Bowl Of Fire releases, as mentioned earlier. Whether it tops the sublime and cohesive discography Bird has built under his own name since the Bowl Of Fire disbanded is a trickier question and personal conflict. But if you caught me on a certain frosty day with the present of a heater that goes all the way to eleven, then I might very easily be swayed.