Monday, March 26, 2007

Yawny At The Apocalypse

There are two reasons for the dearth of posts from me this past week. The first is the stomach virus that has laid me low for days now. The less said about that, the better, believe me. The second is that I knew my next post would be about Andrew Bird, whose new record, Armchair Apocrypha, was released last Tuesday (but had leaked onto the 'Net months ago). Plain and simple, Andrew Bird's music can leave me at a loss for words.

That hasn't always been the case. In the late 90s, when he was a sideman for The Squirrel Nut Zippers and fronted Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire (the son of one of my law partners was the bass player in the latter), I certainly marvelled at his virtuosity on the violin, was impressed with the clever, affectionate homages to old time music -- 20s jazz and caberet, Django Reinhardt and Kurt Weill -- that he was able to craft with his bandmates, and thought he was an intriguing (if also pretty eccentric) live performer. But did I think his talent was truly exceptional? Not really.

All of that changed in the fall of 2000, when I got the rough mix of a record called The Swimming Hour, which would turn out to be the final album by the Bowl of Fire. Suddenly, the loving early-20th Century pastiche of their prior records had given way to something else altogether -- gorgeous, inventive melodies, lush symphonic arrangements, pointedly personal lyrics and soaring lead vocals that recalled Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke. This was flat-out inspired, beautiful pop music, as influenced by The Beatles and The Beach Boys as by Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller. I was positively floored.

Since then, and despite the demise of his original band, Andrew Bird hasn't missed a step. 2003's Weather Systems was a modestly low-key and lovely solo debut, while 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs was uniformly brilliant, packed with amazing songs and as lushly arranged and produced as The Swimming Hour.

You can probably see where I'm headed with this. Armchair Apocrypha is another jaw dropper, packed with Bird's singular brand of melodic, literate and gorgeously embellished pop. Highlights include the slow-burn-to-sizzle opener, "Fiery Crash," on which the epic string arrangement -- so buried in the mix that that you practically need headphones to hear it -- makes the little tune sound like it's daydreaming of something much bigger, the keening "Plasticities," all pizzicato strings and fuzzbox guitar, and the splendid "Heretics," which combines all of the best qualities of Bird's music -- a terrific song, layered violin tracks, dense production and his unique voice -- into one of the best tracks Bird has ever created. But those are just my favorite cuts as I write this, and there's not a dud in the bunch. Andrew Bird is the real deal, and this record is destined for all sorts of best-of lists at the end of the year.

MP3: Andrew Bird - "Heretics" from Armchair Apocrypha