the marvelous mr. bird (first part)

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006
One day not that long ago, I had the sudden realization that almost all of the solo male singers in my music collection fall into three rough categories: High Singers, Werewolves, and Mumblers (examples available upon request). There is of course the occasional crossover and outlier, but the general divisions remain. (For some reason these categories don't hold true for bands. And why can't I have sudden realizations about the meaning of life or something? but I digress...) Andrew Bird has dipped into all of these categories, but I think he's probably a natural Mumbler. A wonderful, dear to my heart Mumbler.

As much as I would like to declare my taste in all things to be the objective "best," I can't do it. Well, I won't do it right now. While I try to be respectful when others disagree with me (that multitude of wrongheaded others) , there are certain performers that I don't understand why EVERYONE doesn't love. Andrew Bird is one of these. A violin playing, otherworldly-whistling master of the obtuse lyric, Andrew Bird should be HUGE! He should be singing and whistling his bizarre old-fashioned but new-fangled songs-that-mean-one -thing-the-first-time -you-hear-them-but-by-the -12th-time-have-taken-on-a -whole-new-shape songs to the world, and the world should be listening!! People would be happier, I swear, even if many of his songs are melancholy and one (at least) involves trepanning. But first, a little background.

I first became aware of Andrew Bird when he was playing violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He was never a regular member of the band but played on their early records and added the zingy touch of gypsy-hot-jazz violin seasoning that made everything sound better. I was addicted to the Zipper's release Hot when it came out. There was just something about it that mentally transported me if not through time at least to a different place -- in no small part due to Andrew Bird (and Tom Maxwell, but that's a post for another day).

When I found out Andrew Bird had a solo album Thrills, with his own band the Bowl of Fire, I was all over it... and it was different, even though many of the Zippers were involved. It was more theatrical, if that even seems possible. Bird's singing style is very mannered on this record, but the project still appealed although for different reasons than what had drawn me to him in the Zippers. It reminds me of a cross between the hot jazz end of the swing revival, weird old-timey american appalachian music, and cabaret music. This CD was released on Ryko. They were so committed to the roots of their style it came with a little piece of paper that fit over the side of the CD with suggestions for further listening -- including Blind Lemon Jefferson (who I mention mostly for the pleasure of typing "Blind Lemon Jefferson" -- one of the best names ever!)

Looking at the liner notes, I notice that the artwork (which I love), was done by none other than Audrey Niffenegger! It's a small world out there. My favorite songs from this CD are probably Glass Figurine (I'm like a mail order product from a housekeeping magazine/how utterly embarrassing) and the Nuthinduin Waltz, although I like the whole album. Pathetique is an example of one of the more cabaret/dramatic songs. (song links only good for one week).

Oh! The Grandeur came out a year later and was along the same lines, except it tips more to the cabaret/ jazz end of the spectrum and less to the weird/old timey end. In a lot of ways it seems more mannered to me, particularly the liner notes. Here's the first bit from the booklet: The popular musical organization known as "Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire" has, of late, enjoyed increased noteriety amongst the youth of to-day's active set, providing a perfunctory accompaniment for a variety of many public events -- including picnic meetings, church sales, and field trips -- as well as the many cotillions at which the nightly society of one another's company is sought.
Although it is clear that there is genuine love for the music -- just listening would disabuse anyone of thinking otherwise -- it seems like they were distancing themselves from that affection because in 1999 you weren't allowed to sincerely love something and still be cool. Here's a little sample from this album: Tea & Thorazine

Stay tuned for the next installment when we enter the New Bird Era (now with whistling) ... everything gets turned upside down when Andrew Bird shakes things up.
5 comments on "the marvelous mr. bird (first part)"
  1. This is most excellent and educational. Thanks especially for the heretofore unknown Niffenegger-Bird link! What a nice cover. She really is quite sick in the head, in all the best ways...

  2. I have to say when I saw her name on the liner notes I had to read it again to be sure. It just figures, you know? (not that there was really any question once I looked at it again... if that's what sick in the head looks like, who would ever want to be well?!?) I'll have to take a picture of the inside --there's more illustration.

  3. Love your evocative singer categories: High singer werewolf mumbler. Could be a chant. Delightful even when not fully understood.

  4. I request more examples!!!

  5. gladly! here is one example from each --
    high singers: Jude
    werewolves: Tom Waits
    mumblers: Beck

    I hope this little bit of explanation doesn't make them less lovely for you, Patty ;)


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