Thursday, March 22, 2007

First Blush: Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

On all of his releases, Chicago’s Andrew Bird plays both guitar and violin, sings, and whistles. Yet he has shifted gears for each of his previous albums. And each of those albums has been better than its predecessor. I picked up The Swimming Hour for two bucks at the ALS Foundation’s Mammoth Music Mart not long after it was released. I certainly liked it, but sometimes when you only spend two dollars, you can take an album for granted. Three and a half years later, I snagged his next two albums at the same time from the late, great, alldirect.com. I found both to be enjoyable listens, but over time, I was able to appreciate the many layers of his work. At this point, I listen to The Secret Production of Eggs almost as much as I do Funeral. His songs get stuck in your head and you find yourself whistling or singing them long after you remove your headphones. Recently, Bird has teamed up with fellow multi-tasker, Martin Dosh who is heavily featured on Armchair Apocrypha. The album comes to us with a great deal of hype and a show schedule for the Riviera on 4/20. Let’s check it out.

Track 1 – Fiery Crash
0:05 – Strummy guitars greet us – somehow I find this reminiscent of the White Album. I’m not certain which track from it or why.
0:44 – Bird is almost rapping, it’s low-key with various overdubs
1:14 – The drums are very complex, letting guitar carry the rhythm
2:14 – We get the first whistle, but it’s not carrying the melody like usual – just adding a little sound in the background for us.
2:32 – The drums have now become very straightforward. Was I confused before? Perhaps.
3:21 – We finally get to the chorus and Bird finally really sings – but only for one line

Track 2 – Imitosis
0:04 – I love it. The track is called Imitosis and he pulled the lead riff directly from his track “I” on Weather Systems.
0:27 – OK, it’s actually the same song redone. He did this before, covering his own instrumental “Skin” (from Weather Systems) with “Skin Is, My”, including new lyrics.
1:17 – This version is way more bluesy and has all kinds of vocal overdubs. It is absolutely coooool. Curtis would dig it.
2:22 – Dosh is snappin’ it on up.
2:38 – Perhaps it’s the familiarity (although the song is completely different), but I am grooving on this one.
3:49 – Abrupt end. I can’t recall if “I” did that.

Track 3 – Plasticities
0:23 – Beautiful instrumental at this point. Quiet and close.
1:20 – “We’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities…” “They’ll fight for your neural walls and plasticities and precious territory.” Is this his version of In Defense Of: The Artist? Of course I really don’t have the first clue what this song is about.
2:24 – So much going on, every which way in this one, but it’s all blending with nothing taking the lead and overpowering the rest of it.
3:52 – The first Websters Definition of Apocrypha: writings or statements of dubious authenticity. In case you’re curious.

Track 4 – Heretics
0:25 – Guitar and violins are playing together with thumpy drums and Bird’s voice coming in over the top
1:19 – This is the first song where his vocals have really been featured in the mix.
1:34 – The chorus is “Thank God it’s fatal. Not shy of fatal.” Well, that’s kind of brave. And ironic I suppose.
2:54 – And now he sings out for the first time, “Don’t you think we might have heard that before?”

Track 5 – Armchairs
0:08 – My favorite Andrew Bird track is “Tables and Chairs”, so for no other reason, I have high hopes for this one. Yes, I know that makes no damn sense. Thanks.
1:05 – After a paced buildup, everything slows and quiets.
2:13 – This is definitely a crooner. I think this may be some sort of nighclub fantasy of Andrew’s. That’s not to say it isn’t good. But he’s able to meander his words around in the space the song is providing him. He sounds nearly almost drunk, which means that he’s had a couple, but is playing it up a bit.
3:18 – First the first time, he put actual pictures of birds on the album art this time. But all are taken from behind each bird’s head. And of course there’s one of the back of his head. If I were an ornithologist, perhaps I could identify each bird. Since I’m not, I’ll name them now (going left to right): Stretch; Fredo; Andrew; Pearl; Paco; Horatio. Surprisingly, Fredo could kick all their asses.
5:58 – We’ve built up to more sound, but it’s still a very deliberate pace. The album kind of came to a halt with this one. We’ll see how he pulls out of it.

Track 6 – Darkmatter
0:03 – First track that begins with only whistling (with a neat echo)
0:38 – ...and now the guitars and drums come rolling in. He’s pulling out of it nicely!
1:19 – Again more vocal overdubbed harmonies, and it sounds rich. This is Bird’s first album without Nora O’Connor, and I have to say that so far I miss her. I realize that sometimes you gotta go do your own thing, but they just sounded great together.
3:40 –I’m once again reminded of some much older song. I can’t place it. It might be an old U2 track, but in a really oblique way.
4:38 – This song is downright uplifting. I bet the lyrics are probably about something really horrible.

Track 7 – Simple X
0:23 – I can’t tell if that’s a drum machine or Dosh is just that good. But there’s some wacky stuff going on.
0:52 – Both his whistling and his singing sound like a musical saw.
2:05 – I don’t want to say that this is a “filler track”, as it sounds good enough. But I also don’t see it being the hit single. It’s all kind of flat – which in the great scheme of things is probably OK. But I’m already looking forward to track 8.
3:08 – Webster’s second definition of Apocrypha is: books included in the Septuagint and Vulgate but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament. In case you're curious.

Track 8 – The Supine
0:17 – This feels like Bird’s attempt to get indiefolkrawkheads to listen to classical music. And it sounds pretty darn good…
0:58 – and the song just ended. Baby steps, people.

Track 9 – Cataracts
0:53 – The vocal mix is the highest of the album here, and the pace is deliberate. I feel as if he’s singing directly to me.
1:28 – this could be movie music – it definitely provokes a feeling of serenity.
2:21 – “Light will fill our eyes like cats.” Man, it’s going to take me a while to figure out the meaning behind this one

Track 10 – Scythian Empires
0:25 – Lots of fingerpicking guitar with pizzicato violin.
1:26 – So far, my One Word Review for this track would be “light”. Take that to mean what you will.
3:30 – Well, he means it, and the song sounds nice. But for some reason, it’s not taking me anywhere.

Track 11 – Spare-Ohs
0:02 – We start with actual birds chirping. I suppose he is truly embracing his name. And if you say the track name out loud…
0:18 – With the whistling and guitar melody, this has all the makings of an Andrew Bird classic. Tell me more!
1:45 – For the chorus we do get a female voice, but it’s Haley Bonar. I don’t know who that is, either. But I’m glad that he hasn’t abandoned the concept, even if it’s with a new lass.
2:21 – Yeah, this is classic Andrew Bird. The guitar is coming in hard downbeats.
3:55 – And the whistle takes us out.

Track 12 – Yawny at the Apocalpyse
0:00 – No lyrics in the liner notes on this one, so it’ll be instrumental (although Bonar is credited with vocals on it, so maybe not). Sorry. I’ll stop reading ahead.
0:53 – The violin is featured with spacey orchestration below it.
3:07 – I’m not yawning, even though this track really acts as a come-down more than anything else. It’s certainly relaxing. Birds chirping to take us out of the album.

That went quickly! First Blush gut reaction says this album is superb. It is not as “songy” as his previous releases, but goes more for the creation of a mood on each track. This will definitely be in heavy rotation in the coming weeks. I recommend checking it out.

3 comments:

Chris Hein said...

Reed,
Based on your first blush I have gone ahead and picked up this album. It's my first Andrew Bird album but I have seen him in concert and had been planning on picking one up ever since, thanks for giving me the motivation. You are my everything! Ok that last part came off a little strange... Maybe not everything...

Clarisse said...

enjoyed the post.
Dosh wrote Simple Excercises for one of his solo albums and Bird wrote vocals over it and does his thing on Simple X here. and if you've never seen him live, i highly rec it. this guy is a mad scientist onstage with looping pedals and nervous tics to boot. to the left.

Anonymous said...

hey i know i'm a little late commenting on this album... i love this album too! fyi- haley bonar is a great artist out of the twin cities. check out her stuff!