One day recently I was driving around listening to NPR. (KQED to be exact!) I don't know when that started for me, listening to NPR in my car instead of music, but at some point I got hip to the hypnotic, comforting sound of smart people telling me what was going on in the world. Since I don't watch the news, and pretty much just read the entertainment section of the newspaper, NPR has filled a void in my knowledge of current events in a most non-threatening way. I also dig Terry Gross so much that if I miss a show, I listen to it online while I'm working. Terry rules. I know, I'm getting old. But that's cool.
So one day I was cruising along, listening to Talk of the Nation and feeling so very intellectual and liberal in my friggin' Subaru, and I heard this sort of plucky middle-eastern sounding music, very spare, and a resonant, whispery, soulful male voice singing in English over it. I was floored, and waited until it was back-announced. (Andrew Bird on Talk of the Nation) As you may recall from my Sun Kil Moon review, this same thing happened to me with Mark Kozelek! Why is it that when I discover new music while driving in the car, rather than from a friend or reading a review, it is so much more meaningful? Perhaps the solitary nature of driving and the intimacy of public or college radio brings it home in a more special way. It feels like my own personal discovery. So it turned out to be Andrew Bird, who I have been hearing about for a few years. I've seen his name in club listings, and a couple of friends in far-flung places had mentioned really liking him, but I just never felt the need to investigate further. I can't believe that none of these friends grabbed me and shouted in my face, "Alison, this is the man for you!!" Because hot damn, he is. Just go to AndrewBird.net and see for yourself. Ooh-la-la!
All I know about Andrew Bird is that he's from Chicago, and I think he used to play violin in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. And he's on Ani Di Franco's label, Righteous Babe. I know -- red flags! Red Flags! Swing band! Ani! Ugh! But please, don't let that stop you from continuing to read this review, I promise there is nothing Swing or righteous babe-ist within a 500-mile radius of this album. The album, which for the sake of space I shall refer to as MPE, is a textured, layered, moody masterpiece. I would say without reservation that this would be my pick for album of the year 2005.
The foundation, like with any great solo artist, is Bird's marvelously expressive sexy voice, and his witty, funny, surreal, literate lyrics. But add to that some of the most unique and beautiful instrumental arrangements this side of Tom Waits, Brian Eno or Joe Henry, and throw in Bird's fantastically bizarre violin-playing and whistling, and you've got yourself quite an indescribable album. I've had some trouble telling people about it because it is so unique, but as soon as they hear it they are smitten and sold. There is a charming spaciness and worldliness to it all that is hard to pinpoint, and Bird's musicianship and arrangement skills just take it to another stratosphere where most singer-songwriters could not even breathe.
Shall I just give you some lyrics from "Opposite Day?"
I got home this morning with the sun right in my eyes
There was no warning as it took me by surprise
Hit me like an act of god causing my alarm
That I'd not become a cephalopod
I still had legs and arms
And today was s'posed to be the day
Molecules decided to change their form
The laws of physics lose their sway
Youthful indiscretion is suddenly the norm
With the good kids sprouting horns
Bird drops the science in almost every song. Things change shape, fly around, and are numbered, considered, and cherished. He's a nerd blessed with superb taste and worldly music knowledge. The album swirls and builds with highs and lows, quiets and louds, that culminate in the majestic "The Naming of Things" and its soaring, belted chorus and moaning strings. If the musical package were not revelatory enough, the artwork is colorfully, painstakingly drawn by artist Jay Ryan. Each song boasts a little panel illustrating the lyrics, printed on lovely matte paper.
If all were right with the world, Andrew Bird would be sitting on top of it, whistling, singing, and plucking, with a twinkle in his eye. Or as he predicts in "Tables and Chairs":
There will be tables and chairs
Pony rides and dancing bears
There'll even be a band
Cause listen after the fall there'll be no more countries
No currencies at all
We're gonna live on our wits
Throw away survival kits
Trade butterfly knives for adderal
And that's not all
There will be snacks, there will
There will be snacks!!
Purchase Andrew Bird - The Mysterious Production of Eggs (at andrewbird.net).