Friday, November 2, 2012

Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

Release Date: February 26, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:
Simple X

As far as solo musicians go, there isn’t a current artist more inspiring than Andrew Bird. With his use of a violin, guitar, array of pedals, voice, whistle and computer mechanisms, he is a one-man band. His shows become epic sweeps of technical skill and song experimentation; he is unafraid of the slow build, adding extra layers and loops, warping the components of the original recordings to make each song uniquely different for each performance. For the past few years he has brung Martin Dosh along, multi-talented percussionist and programmer, who adds a heartbeat to Bird’s cerebral, live performances. My introduction to Bird was 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha. It’s an undeniably confident sounding record, full of inventive lyricism and unorthodox songwriting. And Bird’s signature whistling, which I’ve heard some declare a nuisance, is so honed and refined, it helps to further distance himself from his counterparts.

The first half of Armchair Apocrypha is the poppiest group of songs Bird has ever written, and that easy accessibility helped to turn me on to his more challenging work. “Fiery Crash,” a fast-tempo track layered around a soft electric guitar sounds like more an outro than an intro. “Imitosis” is eccentric, reminding me of a more cerebral-sounding Beck, and reading the lyrics and/or watching the video for “Imitosis” further projects the image:

Why do they congregate in groups of four
Scatter like a billion spores and let the wind just carry them away?
How can kids be so mean?
Our famous doctor tried to glean as he went home at the end of the day

Some complain Bird is borderline nonsensical in his quest at sounding highbrow, but he has some absolute lyrical gems on tracks like “Armchairs” (time is a crooked bow), “Plasticities” (think life is too long / to be a whale in a cubicle / nails under your cuticles) and “Darkmatter” (do you wonder where the self resides / is it in the head or between your sides).

As good as the more inviting first half of Armchair Apocrypha is, it’s the middle and later portion of the record where Andrew Bird is at his finest. The seven-minute long “Armchairs” is a refrained masterpiece, ambient strings and violins introduce a slow piano as it builds into an explosive culmination where Bird sings those lines, “time is a crooked bow.” The excellent “Simple X” is the only song co-written by Dosh, it’s skittery percussion driven rhythm an outlier to most of Bird’s other material. On “Cataracs” and “Spare-Ohs,” Haley Bonar’s twangy backing vocals beautifully contrast Bird’s soft voice, marking the best portions of both songs. And then there’s “Scythian Empires,” a song where Bird, who’s a classically trained violinist and whistler but self-taught guitarist, shows how naturally all instruments come to him with an incredible display of finger-picking. The thing is, Armchair Apocrypha isn’t even his best album. The Mysterious Production of Eggs is up next.

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