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Discussions: Andrew Bird

By Ray Finlayson & Jesus Lopez; December 7, 2011 at 2:00 PM 

Andrew Bird

In our next installment of Discussions, Ray Finlayson and Jesus Lopez tackle the work of Andrew Bird.

RAY FINLAYSON: The main focus of these discussions is to talk about the band’s or artist’s best album or something similar. With Andrew Bird I don’t really like thinking of albums or songs of his as “the best” because quite simply, to me, he’s an exceptionally consistent artist who has never put out a bad album, nor one that doesn’t deserve attention and doesn’t reward. So rather I think I’d prefer the term “favourite” since I find it hard to fathom the idea of an Andrew Bird fan specifically not liking any of his work. And considering Bird has grown brilliantly and beautifully at times over his music career, that is somewhat of a grand statement. I could see someone calling his debut album Music of Hair far from astounding, but many of the instrumental tracks showcase his skill on violin which he’s been mastering since childhood, and also how he can dabble in styles from all over the world without sounding derivative or cheesy. In fact, thinking about it, I’d say it’s an incredibly apt and fitting debut if you look at the sounds explored during his Bowl of Fire era and even on his most recent album Noble Beast.

JESUS LOPEZ: I agree that it would be hard to discern a clear-cut winner from the ever-changing Andrew Bird. He’s a difficult artist to pin down, performing something so deeply classic archetypal in his first forays and then, in the same record even (Music of Hair‘s “Pathetique” comes to mind), switching to that sweet string seduction cut with a bass and guitar that we’ve all come to love.

Still, there is something deeply mysterious and even haunting at some points in Armchair Apocrypha that are sometimes missing the just-being-cool jamming with Bowl of Fire. Bird has his fun tracks, which are more concentrated in his earlier recordings. I did enjoy Oh! The Grandeur, but they’re not the albums that I seek first in a Bird-itch. It’s not that they’re bad; it’s more that they are a smaller piece of a very tasty pie.

I’m dancing around saying “better” or “worse” definitely consciously: at different points in his career, Bird is nearly two different performers. It’s apples and oranges. I think that point is really driven home in how he’s always reworking songs performing them or refining a past musical phrase in later albums.

It seems like the best way to understand Bird’s recordings is in relation to one another. Appreciating his jazz revival because you know he can take you into a tropical descent with “Hot Math” with those same fingers seems about right to me. Each difference being complementary gives us some sort of cohesion from this tree that produces both apples and oranges.

That said, my favourite Bird album is probably Useless Creatures. Sure, an instrumental is a weird pick for an artist whose primary selling point is syrupy prose and tasty words. But there barely seems to be room for them in a space so deeply crowded with his musical creations, no lyrics long enough to lay over the sheer expanse that some of these songs carve out. I think the violin speaks plenty anyway.

RAY: I think if you wanted to simplify the explanation as to why Bird’s music differs with substance and style then it could be done by saying that’s he’s simply matured. But, I suppose, even that feels like a misstep of phrasing as he’s never really be juvenile in the literal sense of the word. Sure, on those early Bowl of Fire records, he can often sound like he’s just jamming with some friends (and brilliantly talented musicians), singing about Dora going to town or jumping into an another reel when it’s his turn. But on The Swimming Hour there was a definite shift in the way both Bird and his band went about things — the song writing was stronger than ever and had about ten times as much force, all while retaining the likes of the jazz roots and keeping an almost jocular tone throughout. It’s a hell of an album and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who could deny it’s the Bowl of Fire’s most substantial and rewarding record.

But, once Bird dropped Weather Systems there was another shift and it made listeners start taking the elegant nature of his work more seriously. And that’s certainly continued, but what’s good to see is that he’s never lost his sense of humour (The Mysterious Production of Eggs sounds like it has a million and one in-jokes that no one but Bird will ever get) or gotten too carried away with what he does.

I must say though that I’m greatly intrigued by you saying that Useless Creatures is your favourite as I would never immediately imagine that would be top of anyone’s list. I hate to repeat myself but I’m not implying it’s a bad record but to steal your phrase, it’s never one I would go to first when I get a Bird-itch. Certainly I can immediately see the appeal and I’ll admit in the past few months I’ve probably spun it more than any other of his works as I find it greatly relaxing and soothing. Maybe it’s just the way I’ve familiarized myself with Bird’s technique and style over the years but there’s just something about his long-winded drawn out streaks and plucks that can fit into my mindset nearly every time which probably explains why I absolutely adore and love his version of “Sectionate City” from his Live From The Basement release.

JESUS: It’s a pretty lovely piece of work. That take of “Sectionate City” demonstrates the willingness to explore sounds that I love too much in Useless Creatures. I was at a concert a few years ago where he played “Happy Birthday” and those last measures were repeated for what seemed like weeks — touched briefly by minor notes, keys corrected, it was an epic last word for the whole set.

That’s a great description of Mysterious Production of Eggs. A musician with a sense of humour that also isn’t terrible is a gem. I’ve always loved that frankness about him that’s definitely not afraid to laugh at himself when he performs a poor note.

Speaking of jokes and language tricks, I think words and lyrics themselves are something to pay attention to in Bird’s work — mainly because he seems not to himself sometimes. Shortly before Noble Beast was released, he gave an interview where he was discussing certain unusual words that came up in the album. Asked what he meant, he just sort of laughed and said, “to be honest, I don’t really care.”

I really think it’s this sort of indifference to meaning that makes Bird such a wonderful lyricist. “She’s got a ham in her handbag, a pig in her purse”? There’s almost something that seems to resist and giggle at you for thinking things were going to make sense in the first place. Other times, there’s a patience in the prose that seems to wait for the right equally-patient listener.

That’s why I was so struck by another review (again, lacking primary source — apologies!) of Noble Beast where the critic was talking about how the album’s most interesting features is that it is sprawling and freed from purpose seeming to go whichever way the wind blows. I wonder if you couldn’t say the same about the rest of his work. If it’s not organic and growing and blowing and sometimes orchestrated nonsensically in a certain way, neat the way a pineapple skin naturally is neat, accidental order like the water cycle or something. I know there’s a rational, creative agent at work orchestrating and ordering, but I can’t help feeling sometimes like things just happened to work just so, just perfectly sometimes when listening to his music. Like it was found rather than made.

RAY: You described his music in a rather beautiful manner there. I totally agree that there’s something wonderfully spontaneous about Bird’s work at times and it’s probably most obvious when he’s on stage lounging about in the looping ambiance with his stripy socks. But a definite talent he has is putting this onto record without ever getting too carried away: from the intro to “Case In Point” to the small instrumentals on Eggs to the jarring beginning of “Effigy.” Even Useless Creatures never seemed like it was dragging. But even though he might not take time out on record to show the origin on his loops and backdrops he always offers something to listeners who enjoy and are interested in this side of his music such (EPs and his many live shows).

I think as he’s always had a light hearted manner of going about how his lyrics were formed. Certainly on his earlier solo records his words seemed deliberate but never forced and I think that’s one of the many reasons why I have a huge fondness for Armchair Apocrypha as I felt it captured a sort of perfect middle ground. But Noble Beast certainly marks a step forward, if you will, in the way he writes (or has written). I recall reading similar things about the album and remember him saying such things about his lyrics. And I kind of love that he uses words and phrases for the way they sound instead of their actual meaning but yet still manages to make them sound important and insightful (the opening lines to “Anonanimal” blow me away every time I listen out for them: “I see a sea anemone / The enemy / See a sea anemone / And that’ll be the end of me”). He’s definitely a man who loves language for all its intricacies, which is just one more reason why he’s such a special musician and artist.

JESUS: By now, anyone reading this would write us off as nothing but romantics. In the spirit of fairness and not-blandness, I’d like those raise those weaker spots in Bird’s work. Least favourite Andrew Bird song?

RAY: I actually have a few contenders, which, I imagine, could sound a little surprising considering how many superlatives I’ve been throwing about here. The first is somewhat recent: “Sic of Elephants.” Bird’s always had a brilliant ability to make near enough anything work and he can turn the simplest melody or idea into something captivating and worthy of your attention but on this track he just seems to dither. The guitar chords seem cumbersome, the surrounding melodies lack memorable touches and even though it’s the most overtly political you’ll likely ever hear Bird be on record, he doesn’t sound really bothered. But at the same time, this song came from the Soldier On EP and thus I don’t hold too much of grudge against it as it’s a b-side. Nonetheless, it still feels kind of sad to see Bird not hit the mark but it’s to be expected of an artist who releases and experiments as much as Bird does. The second track is a much older one: “Ides of Swing.” I can forgive Bird much more easily here as it’s a light-hearted track from when he was just starting on with his Bowl of Fire but still, it just a bit of a layabout track that feels like it brings the pace down after “Minor Stab.”

I’ll honestly admit that here are a few other tracks he’s released that are perhaps to be considered more important and notable that don’t quite hit the mark, but these tracks I don’t look at in an unfavourable light as often they’re part of a bigger whole and have become and almost essential part of the whole album experience. What about you?

JESUS: The recollection of “Ides of Swing” has me fighting a laugh. I have this image of Bird doing a Jekyll/Hyde thing where he’s pulling those guitar strings so hard and then he’s Django Reinhardt again doing his minstrel folk. There is always a weak critic inside me that wants to infantilize certain songs, cute-ify them and just adore them even if they’re — musically — emptying their bowels all over the floor. Some songs from favourite artists are like irresponsible kittens in this way: their recklessness, their lack of training to be only enjoyed by the most committed.

Anyway, I agree with you on “Ides,” and I think he does the sweet & sour thing way better on “Pathetique.” I always see that last laughable lyrical plea in stacks like poetry and it’s like a plea from someone too grossly self-aware of their own foolishness, yet completely lovable:

“I bear no grudge
I bear no grudge
I’m over you
So:
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon back to me, O.K.?”

I do love “Sic of Elephants,” which only renders its true powers when played alone in the bedroom at the unsuspecting hour of 2 p.m.

Without a doubt, “The Privateers,” is probably my least favourite Andrew Bird song. I thought Noble Beast was a master stroke up until I heard this rearranged incarnation of “The Confession,” which was one of my favourite songs from the Bowl of Fire times. “The Confession” was comically pleading and desperate in the funny way, where “Privateers” is all chipper and driving-rock with all the wrong words. It’s the same conflicted car crash of feelings I get when I hear most cries of betrayal or suffering embedded in pop music: insincere, lame. It was a surprising flop in midst an otherwise great album. Maybe it’s that contrast too that serves to secure it as such an awful song.

Also, I’ve always enjoyed the words, but never the music of “Fake Palindromes.” I don’t always notice traditional arrangements as obviously as I do in this song. It just seems to be employed with little imagination and vigour. I wouldn’t mind a rewrite of this one.

RAY: I’d be up for a rewrite or re-interpretation of any Andrew Bird song, but surely not “Fake Palindromes”!? I must join the bandwagon with many others and say that it’s simply an untouchable song. Okay, I concede, maybe “untouchable” is a little hyperbolic, but still, I couldn’t really imagine it any other way. If I had to strain the critical side of myself then yes, okay, the music isn’t as wonderfully melodic as other parts of Eggs but I think the power and impressionable nature of the song lies on the sheer simple energy it has in that big riff and those quick builds. It’s a song that’s almost too fast for itself as perhaps demonstrated when Bird cuts himself off at the last sentence.

However, I do agree with you regarding “The Privateers.” I recall the initial surprise when I realised he’d spruced up and brought back a Bowl of Fire song but it’s definitely a weak point on the album, and on its own it’s not a greatly memorable. Whereas the original had that languid air about it while being light-hearted (sort of like a sad clown) – much like your description – the new version is just about a light fluffy build that, I think, feels lacklustre.

But, again, surely not “Fake Palindromes”?! After hearing this thought from you I’d be most interested to hear what you think about the rest of Eggs.

JESUS: It’s true. “Fake Palindromes” has always made me yawn. I know it’s a favourite among pretty much everyone but I’ve never found myself waiting to hear it in concerts or getting much past the boredom I feel listening to it. There is a sharp guitar attack method that is employed in “Fiery Crash” and “Dear Dirty,” but it works better in the latter examples. Something fitting about the tempo is too fast there, something edgy, too dissonant. There certainly is some work put into the song, and I could be nice about it and do an “A for effort.”

That said, I love the rest of Eggs. It’s a wonderful album that caught my ear when I heard that whistle solo on “Masterfade.” The celebratory declaration, “there will be snacks,” on “Tables and Chairs” scans like a birthday party in midst a song anticipating apocalypse. What’s not to love? It’s sharp and fun and absurd.

RAY: Eggs is a really easy album to love and thus I’d say it’s probably his most accessible album. But I suppose I’m going to be kind of shocking here and say that “Table and Chairs” never really hit me like it seems to have hit other people (I personally would demand a whole host of other songs from Mr. Bird during a live show). Don’t get me wrong, I think the song’s divine in its own right and the idea of there being snacks, pony rides and dancing bears (and even a band!) during the collapse of the world is just a sublime combination of juxtaposing terms: simplicity/intelligence, real/dream-like. But it was never the highlight of the album for me. Instead I too found myself attracted more to a track like “Masterfade” or “MX Missiles” with their chirpy whistle solos and wordplay. I remember even having a phase where I would just write down some of the lyrics on blank till receipts at work and leave them lying about. The lyrics were just as great to listen to as they were to write down and Andrew Bird is one of a few artists who has that effect on me.

But you touched upon a good point about his sound and he certainly does have the ability to just nail a specific sound and/or texture at times. On Eggs it would have to be “Skin Is, My” and his pizzicato, but he seems to have been adding a rougher, almost prickly feel to his violin which makes distinguishing between his guitar and violin all the more unclear. It’s the kind of sounds that’s just that little bit different every time (much like all aspects of his live shows) but I suppose it’s caught best on a track like “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” on Noble Beast where it both impresses on its own but melds almost seamlessly with the woodwind around it.

JESUS: I’d wager that “Tables and Chairs” is a just-for-fun song for many others. It’s a product of that Bird humour we discussed earlier. Not that I’m saying it shouldn’t “count” in a critical or artistic way, but there is something to be said for a creative pursuit that, for a moment, ceases to engage the eternal and the mystic and detours into the maybe useless, perhaps pointless.

There is an interesting aesthetic in Bird’s work you can see begin to define itself in this song: apocalypse. Starting maybe from “Tables and Chairs” you can see this really vast and slightly terrifying interest in the end of the world that has always intrigued me. Armchair is book-ended with portraits of destruction. Noble Beast is a primarily animalistic narrative taking place away from or maybe after people. And there isn’t a single human voice to be heard on Useless Creatures.

The caveat: destruction is the defining moment, which heralds the awakening of the real. The warnings of “Tables and Chairs” are against warnings: don’t worry about your worries. Houses and humans will fail, but so will banks and money. It’s a well-worn Dadaist trope, but no less welcome here.

And I don’t think this sort of aloofness from society is unique to the later stuff. Even Music of Hair has a sound about it that’s very solitary like someone alone in a room. Or those two from Weather Systems, “–>” and “<--," which sound like they had their start as head sounds and blossomed from there. RAY: There’s nothing wrong with having a running theme through your body of work as it can add a sort of subtle consistency that helps tie songs and albums together, helping the listener get a better idea of the inner-workings of an artist’s mind. It helps that Bird has never been too direct about the themes that run through his work as obsessions (if it is to be called that) can easily become tiresome in other hands (Matt Bellamy of Muse and his fixation with space, for instance). I think, if anything then, that it’s just fortunate that he manages to combine his morose preoccupation with destruction, the apocalypse and the downfall of society with music that rarely fails to captivate and/or intrigue. Songs like “Yawny At The Apocalypse”, “Sigh Master” or “<--" have a (literal) wordless beauty about them which could easily be as interpreted as uplifting, warming and reassuring as easily as they could be heard as sad, lonesome requiems for the world's final hours. JESUS: Yeah, I don’t think anyone would want to be beat over the head with the end of the world or anything like that. But I do think that fascination is interesting when you consider these romantic and comic views set out in his music. The pep-talk “Take Courage” and the funny, doomed conversation of “Spare-Ohs” make me wonder where people sit in Bird’s apocalyptic vision. The gestures of affection toward people are complicated when you follow them with destruction.

I think the first time I noticed this curiosity was at the end of (sorry for the repeat reference) Useless Creatures (very sorry). “Sigh Master” takes you back into the territory of the same song: humming like a light breeze, chirpy whistles and the equestrian clop-clop of the percussion. The listener is back on the same field trip with Bird seeing the natural the way he sees it: intoxicatingly beautiful. Suddenly, he pulls the rug out from under you and everything goes minor and just sounds so utterly rotten and moribund. There is an ugliness there like death that is described in the same sort of careless, just-happened-upon-it informality that defines the other portions of the album.

I just wonder how you square that triangle, the beauty of biology and the affinity for its destruction. Thoughts?

RAY: Perhaps the triangle is not to be squared. Perhaps it’s just a case that he works from those different ends that you named, going in between whenever he so pleases. But I do think that there’s always a clear path between the two which is likely decorated with humour, wordplay and an endless spectrum of melody.

But as much as he has these core points, I can’t help but accuse Bird of being a very unspecific lyricist, at least in the personal sense. He talks about the end of the world and how sudden feelings might dash through him (“Oh No,” “Fiery Crash”) but rarely do we actually get to see into his heart. I don’t mind having his head in focus as it has provided years of wonder and amazement but there is a part of me that would like to hear Bird sing about love and all that mushy stuff. Maybe he has and I’ve not picked up on it. I certainly was a little surprised when a line like “still my lover won’t return to me” came up on “Souverian,” as for once he seemed to referring to his own lost love (his performance seems to have a sincere heavy-heartedness to it to me). But still, all his talk of parsnips and thrushes brought it back to nature, which is fine considering that’s the theme of the album, but I find it a little frustrating that it’s so hard to be sure. Maybe it’s just that love is such a tricky subject to get right that I want to see an intelligent artist like Bird approach it more directly. Or maybe its complexity is exactly why he’s avoided it.

JESUS: I’m assuming you heard this, but just in case: here’s a link.

RAY: I had come across this before but in another form – a live version sung in French, no less. But I had meant to check out this version (so much for doing real research for this discussion) and I’m glad you pushed it in my face as it’s a lovely rendition of lovely song. Forgive me if I sound incredibly stupid here but I can see a few similarities between Andrew Bird and Kermit the Frog: they both have that wistful, almost patriarchal knowledge despite not really looking that old (or being that old I suppose in Bird’s case); they have that streak of humour which can go between self-deprecation to clever observation and no matter what either of them might be talking about (rainbows, formaldehyde, being green) you can’t help but find yourself captivated.

JESUS: At the mention of Andrew Bird’s age, I had to find out his age myself: a rocking 38 years old.

I think you hint on something here in his delivery which I’ve also always found equally attractive. His words and how much he seems to mean each thing that he says has always been a draw for me. I’m not talking about the truth of the songs or anything, the “Fiery Crash” he really wants or a real Dora in town. I mean more that he’s very committed to the truth of his lyrics and imagination and ideas. The poetic truth. Isaac Slade of The Fray has always seemed a little estranged to the narratives he sings. Bob Dylan has always seemed to be a witness to his musical concepts, perplexed or fascinated, like the music is happening independent of him. But Bird is always on an even keel with his music right there with it completely committed to the idea of, in this case, being green.

RAY: I wholeheartedly agree and I think this quality definitely manifests itself in his live shows. Take “Why?” for instance: he will strain himself to get that riff just right, sometimes to the point it looks like it’s causing him pain. But with every note, every strum of the violin, every word he sings and every blank stare he shoots at the audience, he is completely invested. The music and lyrics don’t so much feel like a part of him – I’d go one step further and say they are him. When you see him perform on stage you don’t just get the man in flesh on a stage; you also get the man expelling his thoughts, his conscience, the very strands of life that make him function from day to day. The music is a constantly fluctuating living creature and even the harshest of skeptics have to admire Bird’s attempt to try and capture this animal (or nonanimal if you will) on record.

JESUS: I think your description is spot on until you discuss his performance as a matter of personal expression. I think we covered this earlier, and we both concluded that Bird’s music — wonderful as it is — lacks that introspective angle which seems to define nearly every creative effort of our day.

No: those songs aren’t the man. I’ve always seen them more as a giant store of silly sounding, completely palatable parables, stories and myths. They are grounded in anecdotal looks at life and people which given them an emotional colour, but I’m not sure it’s his emotion we’re exploring anymore than we’re exploring Shakespeare’s views of war in Richard V. Both seem more interested in representation than they are expression, which is part of what lends them a sort of eternal, stand-alone, I-found-this-didn’t-make-it feel. Sufjan Stevens has this mode down to an art.

I would love to hear more about Bird’s ambitions and his dreams and vices, but I don’t see that as something we can expect to derive from his music. Sure, his name is on the credits, but I would say the man remains cryptic well after you’ve grown to love his work.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Pavement
Radiohead
Bob Dylan
Prince
M83
U2

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