Monday, January 26, 2009

First Blush: Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

It doesn't seem all that long ago when we first blushed Bird's previous record, Armchair Apocrypha, giving it a solid thumbs up that only strengthened on further listens. Bird has received a lot of attention in the interim, most notably by writing blog pieces and being featured in the New York Times. I'm a much bigger fan of his now than I was then, and now that I have the new record in hand, I can't wait to give it a spin. So let's see how he dealt with all that attention. Here we go!

Track 1 - Oh No
The album kicks off with a light, airy feel, almost reminiscent of a 1950s Disney movie. Then Andrew casually begins his vocals. This is seriously reminding me of Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light." No, that's not really a good thing. It's catchy in a kind of sing-songy way, but that's really far beneath what Bird is capable of. But he generally starts albums slowly. Hopefully this is just the ramp-up, and we'll get into some more interesting stuff soon.

Track 2 - Masterswarm
Is that a harpsichord? (No, it's a guitar.) Just vocals with a little guitar in the background at the outset here, it feels like a more minimal Richard Buckner tune. Then it picks up with some hand-percussion and pizzicato violin. But the vocals remain front and center. This one feels like it could be the backing track on a PBS travel or cooking show. Still waiting for him to grab my attention.

Track 3 - Fitz and the Dizzyspells
Some more unique sounds, and then finally we hear something from Dosh's drum kit and some actual guitar strumming. "We were all fast asleep" - is he talking about the first two songs? This still feels kinda minimalist for Andrew Bird, but at least things are picking up a little. But the song sounds like it's from the 1960s and not remotely breaking any new ground.

Track 4 - Effigy
Pizzicato sounds Asian as this one begins with a lot of echo on the violin. One minute in, we get our first vocal harmonies. It's another overtly peaceful song, but maybe he's warming up.

Track 5 - Tenuousness
We're more in classic Bird territory here. The picked guitar pops and the vocals are half-sung, half-spoken as they swing like an open gate. It just kind of goes long, but so far this is the most dynamic track on the album.

Track 6 - Nomenclature
Some more bedtime music, Bird croons in a sleepy sort of way with scant percussion behind him. Then 1:45 in, he suddenly grasps on to a vocal note as the rest of the sounds crest behind it - just for a half-minute or so.

Track 7 - ouo
Is this the end of side A or the beginning of side B? Either way, it's 20 seconds long.

Track 8 - Not a Robot, But a Ghost
"I run the numbers through the floor. Here's how it goes I crack the codes, I crack the codes that end the war." The song is kind of "mathy" itself. So that sounds apt. If there's a unique single that can bring in some new fans, this is probably it. His vocals sound more earnest and there's a customized, driving beat running through the whole song. But then it breaks down with spacey strings and whistling before the beat comes back. So maybe not a real single, but he's definitely doing something new on this one.

Track 9 - Unfolding Fans
Just like the name says. OK, not really, but it's a transitional instrumental that sounds reminiscent of an orchestra tuning up.

Track 10 - Anonanimal
My head's bopping to this one. He's got a certain groove going. I have no idea what this word is supposed to mean (an unnamed animal?), but he's repeating it. The second half starts to feel like a mid-90s emo band (back before emo became emo), with really erratic rhythms. I'm digging this track a lot. The most interesting one so far.

Track 11 - Natural Disaster
Another one with a calm approach. He's talking about science or something. I dunno. He's really not grabbing me here, and this song sounds so basic that it's beneath him. Perhaps on future listens, I'll get the subtlety.

Track 12 - The Privateers
Oh, another one about Steve Forbes, right? "Don't sell me anything. Your one-time offer is so uncalled for, you call it piece of mind. 'Cause I see your house from here. Now all the leaves have fallen, dear." OK, not really about Steve Forbes. But kinda. The lyrics remain defiant, but the sound is more triumphant, building positively as the song goes along before it resolves in an odd, curious coda (which works, by the way).

Track 13 - Souverian
The longest track on the album starts slowly and small, as Bird approaches the lyrics as if he's telling a tale. At 4:00, it starts to finally crescendo, but then abruptly stops, pauses, and enters into an entirely new section. The new section is even slower. Over the last 30 seconds, it devolves into some experimental sounds before fading out.

Track 14 - On Ho
Multi-tracked strings take us out of the album, as if it's time to roll the end credits and send us on our way at peace.

Every other Andrew Bird album I own has taken some time to grow on me, no matter how much I liked it at first. That said, right now I'm not all that high on this one. It comes across as a bit self-indulgent. Maybe with headphones it would garner the intimacy that these songs surely require. Or perhaps it will just take some time. I can't fathom that there is a "Tables and Chairs," "Don't Be Scared," or "Dark Matters" on this album, and that's certainly a disappointment. Bird had been evolving in a certain direction over the course of his career. Maybe he ran out of room. Or perhaps with the heightened exposure, he's going for something else that's going to take me some time to really get. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's earned it. But at first blush, I don't find myself too psyched.


Rick said...

How's the second disc (Useless Creatures) that comes with the Deluxe Edition?

Reed said...

Unfortunately, I don't have it yet, but hope to get my hands on it. I believe it is all instrumental.

erik said...

I feel you on this Andrew, but Anonanimal is a moster track, maybe my favorite of his so far.

Reed said...

You're right, Erik. The whole album is growing on me. I dig the hell out of Anonanimal (another word with no definition on a Bird album), and I am compelled to also say that the middle part reminds me of Chicago's (Atlanta's?) Life at Sea. The guitar sound is very reminiscent as well as the rhythm.