Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Musicals and Dying Cities

Andrew Bird
Armchair Apocrypha
Grade: A-

Download: Andrew Bird - "Heretics"

When Andrew Bird’s first couple of albums came out, he was referred to in the press as “the violinist from the Squirrel Nut Zippers.” As his solo releases progressed – beginning with Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire in 1997 and especially upon the release of 2003’s Weather Systems – people started realizing that they were listening to someone who was more than a violinist. Andrew Bird, they realized, is a great singer-songwriter.

The “singer-songwriter” tag has its shortcomings too, because describing Bird’s music is an exercise in futility. There are acoustic guitars, but – despite a few of his records appearing on Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe label – he’s not exactly “folk.” Instead, his records are best described by moments: swirling violins; thumping, pulsating drums; Bird’s soaring, seemingly elastic voice.

These are all present on Armchair Apocrypha, a release whose hype has grown as Bird’s live reputation has grown. Bird toured with Martin Dosh last fall (even making a quick stop in Minneapolis for a couple shows with Dosh at Bryant-Lake Bowl). Dosh’s improvisational, sample-laden approach proved a perfect fit for his collaborator, and his guest spot on Armchair Apocrypha also works well with Bird’s overall motif. This record doesn’t stray too far from Andrew Bird’s well-worn formula, but since that formula includes good songs, it doesn’t need to. Leadoff track “Fiery Crash,” with its head-nodding beat and steady, two-chord progression, is a perfect introduction to this consistently solid disc. Things get a bit more complicated from there – from the minor-key tango of “Imitosis” to the piano arpeggios of “Scythian Empires” – but never overly so.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best track on Armchair Apocrypha is also its most concise. “Plasticities” starts with gently plucked violins and some vague guitar chords, but it soon snaps into pop lockstep, with a chorus featuring Bird singing, “We’ll fight/we’ll fight for your musicals and dying cities.” It’s simply a gem of a song, one that may be featured a little too early on the album to make a significant impression.

For this reason, the album sags on its second half. The songs aren’t bad, but, with the exception of “Scythian Empires,” they are not nearly as memorable as the record’s early tracks. But on the whole, this collection is well worth your money, if only for its amazing highlights.

(David Brusie)


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