First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2010, Volume 17, #2
Written by John Metzger
Fri February 5, 2010, 06:30 AM CST
In hindsight, just about everyone can agree that, right from the start, Squirrel Nut Zippers was destined to be nothing more than a passing fad. Even when its popularity was mushrooming, it was clear that the band was too campy to last for very long. Nevertheless, it is highly doubtful that anyone really expected that Squirrel Nut Zippersí most promising offshoot would be Andrew Bird. The violinist was never even considered a full-fledged member of the group. Yet, Bird managed to parlay the modicum of attention that he received into a burgeoning solo career.
Initially, Bird struggled to find his footing. As he searched for his artistic voice, he produced works that were difficult to digest. While crafting The Swimming Hour in 2001, however, Bird formulated a plan of attack that, with the exception of his experimental EP Weather Systems, has fueled all of his subsequent albums. Defying the odds, he shrugged off his early missteps. As he moved from The Mysterious Production of Eggs to Armchair Apochrypha to his latest set Noble Beast, Bird essentially learned to apply his orchestral outlook to a series of melodically-driven indie-rock tunes.
Not surprisingly, then, Noble Beast ó like all of Birdís recordings ó is a meticulously crafted affair. Not only does every instrument have a unique role to play, but also each note has its proper place in his arrangements. This is symphonic pop in every meaning of the word, and it carries forward to the nth degree all of the ideas that were set in motion by Brian Wilsonís work on Pet Sounds.
Bird has many more decades of history from which to draw inspiration, too, and throughout Noble Beast, he leaves few stones unturned. Opening cut Oh No pays homage to Beck, while Fitz and the Dizzyspells latches onto the coattails of the Velvet Underground. Masterswarm draws the dimly lit folk of David Crosby and Donovan through the hypnotic swirl of Nina Simoneís Come Ye, and more often than not, shades of Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright lurk inside Birdís operatic vocals.
Although it is easy to identify the many influences that weigh upon his work, Bird makes painstaking efforts to weave them together, thereby blurring the lines that divide them. His intention isnít really to obscure his roots, but rather to use his historical baggage as a way of providing an array of voices to the grand symphony he is sculpting. Not surprisingly, then, Noble Beast can be quite a dizzying affair. Over time, the set also reveals Birdís newfound obsession with rhythm and movement. Whether he is plucking the strings of his violin, allowing his distinctive whistle to flutter above the fray, or giving space to his accompanists, it is all meant to feed the pulse of his material. Bird delivers his lyrics with elongated syllables, and his voice darts upward and downward through the instrumentation, as if it were riding upon the cresting waves of sound.
Still, there is this nagging sense that Bird is trying too hard. Pet Sounds was successful because it didnít force the listener to consider its construction. The album always has been enjoyable on its own terms. There is no question that Noble Beast has many moments that are equally ingratiating and melodious. Yet, as the set drifts among the spaces that seem to burst without pause from Birdís imagination, there also are times when he becomes bogged down by his own creative process. His attention to detail is astounding, and Bird frequently appears to be perched on the verge of creating a new kind of classical music. For this, he certainly deserves countless accolades, but in the end, Noble Beast would be better if Bird had used his heart a little more and his brain a little less. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Noble Beast is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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