Something is strange in Andrew Bird’s music, but I haven’t been able to pin-point exactly what. Over the last few months leading up to his show here at Western on May 6, I’ve been obsessively listening to his music, attempting to identify some sort of missing element or ambiguity. I could state the obvious, and point to the nontraditional characteristics of his music— his eerily melodic whistle, the two-part harmonies, the unusual and somewhat awkward lyrics accompanied by a frenzied violin, guitar or glockenspiel backdrop—and how it all somehow pulls together to create, of all things, well-crafted pop music. But with all this given, I still can’t figure out the missing element, and I can’t even figure out if I genuinely like Bird’s music; yet I keep on listening to it.
With all that said, Bird’s evolution as a musician is unique if not prolific. Trained as a classical violinist at Northwestern University in Illinois, Bird, in his early 20s, broke away from the pedagogy of classical music and, under the influence of Hungarian Gypsy music, early Blues, and early country/folk music, began brewing a new alternative to pop music, with violin and whistle in tow.
Though his early commercial success began with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and his association with the annoying swing-revival movement of the mid 1990s, Bird has since moved on to release ten formidable albums of his own, including seven studio albums and three live albums, all demonstrations of his unique and unmatched sound.
Admittedly not a musician with a natural affinity for the studio process, Bird’s collected body of work thus far is better described as a compilation of musical explorations rather than a precession of concept albums. Perhaps a perfectionist, or simply an obsessive, he tends to revisit songs and melodies recorded on past albums, renewing them and recording them again on later albums. For instance, we have the instrumental song “Skin” on 2003’s Weather Systems, later to be revamped and renamed “Skin, Is My,” with added lyrics and an impassioned chorus on his 2005 album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. And this is only one of many examples of complete songs or melodies that have been recycled, given make-overs and reappeared on later albums. However, it is not this somewhat unusual approach to recording that leaves me with an odd feeling in regard to Bird.
Though it is interesting to note the way Bird evolves and revisits prerecorded songs on his studio albums, it is through his live albums, particularly the three Fingerling EPs, that he really shines—hopefully a good premonition for Bird’s appearance on Western’s Multi Purpose Room stage come Sunday.
Specifically, one only needs to compare Bird’s live rendition of “Scythian Empire” on the Fingerlings 3 compilation to the studio-recorded version on Bird’s latest album, Armchair Apocrypha. The live version is much more earnest than the studio version; the violin pizzicato punctuating the beginning of the live version is just a little less precise, almost vulnerable. Bird’s voice and vibrato laden whistle are less saccharine on the live recording, and seemingly more truthful as he sings of our “breathtaking Scythian empire,” while emphasizing the relevant lyrics, “their Halliburton attaché cases are useless/while Scotch-Guard Macintoshes shall be carbonized.” By comparison, the studio recording of the song replaces the swelling legato of the violins with the more mechanic pizzicato and staccato piano line, creating a more automated impersonal feeling.
And perhaps this is the odd element to Bird’s music—his live recordings. To me, his entire Fingerlings series of EPs are much more impressive than his critically acclaimed studio albums. On the studio recordings it seems that Bird’s sometimes uncomfortably honest or unusual lyrics fight for attention with his lush instrumentation. And I don’t like that. His live recordings, however, seem to simply unite both elements—his voice and his whistle no longer are so distinct from the stringed instruments Bird wields external to his body. His entire sound evens out and unifies, and though Bird keeps writing formulaic, though ingenious, 3-4 minute standard pop songs, it’s in his live performance that he should whoa the crowd—to almost a strange degree.