Friday, January 30, 2009

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast

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Though none of Andrew Bird's previous releases can be characterized as straightforward, Noble Beast is probably his most challenging and least immediately accessible record to date. Previous efforts like Weather Systems and The Mysterious Production of Eggs usually offered guideposts that suggested where the songs were heading; even though these songs weren't redundant, they were usually rooted in a common musical sensibility that allowed the listener to keep his bearings as he navigated the vagaries of Bird's bizarre and often darkly humorous musical world. Yet Noble Beast is a whole other, um, beast. If previous release Armchair Apocrypha occasionally found both Bird becoming more impressionistic and non-linear, Noble Beast pushes that approach considerably. Upon initial listens it sounds like the equivalent of being lost in the woods while being pursued by a whistling, ill-rhyming violin player prone to fits of lyrical abstraction.

The album walks a fine line between obliqueness and willful obtuseness. Certainly some of its songs never quite catch fire even after repeated airings, suggesting that a certain amount of self-editing on Bird's part might have improved the album. At a shade under 55 minutes, it's one of Bird's longest, and occasionally seems even longer. Mimicking the approach taken on his previous albums, a few short instrumentals are included; though these are all nice enough and remind the listener of Bird's well-documented musical training, at most they offer a brief respite from the album's more difficult moments. "Tenuousness" relies on Bird's tendency towards wordplay and rhyming to a fault and is too clever for its own good. Though Bird bristles at such comparisons, the vocals and instrumentals on "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" are overly reminiscent of Thom Yorke and Radiohead, though in Bird's case this probably more attributed to the quirks in his vocal delivery than any type of intentional homage to the band.

Noble Beast's charms unfold slowly, given time to settle in the listener's ears. While the album does require a certain degree of patience from the listener, a number of its songs are as inventive as anything Bird has recorded. Eventually the songs sound far less random and scattershot that they initially appear, with Bird's patented approach of violin, guitar, loops, and whistling - a helluva lot of whistling - utilized to good effect. Opening track "Oh No" begins with a violin melody that is soon accompanied by piano and a good bout of whistling, "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" is as up-tempo and danceable a song as it gets (for Suzuki-trained violinists at least), the near-epic "Nomenclature" features some of Bird's most urgent and soaring vocals, and the gorgeous arrangement of "Souverian" is built around a jaunty piano and vocal take that wouldn't sound out of place on Bird's previous albums. Other songs like "Effigy" are more subdued and almost acoustic; perhaps Noble Beast's most striking moment, it includes a pseudo-flamenco guitar melody and an old-timey violin arrangement that nicely augments Bird's sardonic and deadpan vocals.

Bird's lyrics are more cryptic than on his previous efforts, with specific evocative phrases suggesting various images and meanings. Only a fool would claim to fully understand the songs' themes or intentions; Tom Waits' well-worn concert joke that the only things adults talk about are food, sickness and death is somewhat applicable here. Bird's usual obsessions - flightless animals, personal reckonings, apocalypse, childhood memories, mortality, myths, superstitions, history's long-gone empires - are again present, often accompanied by rhyme schemes that are either brilliant or overly academic, depending on your point of view. Yet in many ways this lyrical ambiguity fits the songs well and gives them added depth. Though it's not the masterpiece Andrew Bird has hinted at since Weather Systems, there's a gradually unfolding mystery and beauty to Noble Beast.

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