Chicago-born violinist, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird was raised from age 4 in the Suzuki method of “Talent Education,” which stresses learning by ear and a direct connection between ability and character. Bird first gained fame by adding his violin to late-’90s Squirrel Nut Zippers records and then by captaining Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, a diverse indie-baroque group loved by critics but pretty much ignored by concert-goers. Since embarking on a very successful solo career in 2003, Bird has released five acclaimed studio albums and a slew of EPs; sold out Carnegie Hall; jammed with Yo-Yo Ma; lent his violin prowess to albums by everyone from My Morning Jacket to Ani DiFranco to Bonnie “Prince” Billy; and contributed an “in-process” songwriting column to the New York Times.
Essentially, Bird is a classically trained virtuoso who has found a way to turn his eclectic tastes (classical, jazz, blues and European folk) into accessible, mesmerizing pop music. The touching modern rock Bird creates on-record and in-concert is impressive both in terms of its coyly simple, poignant arrangement and its gripping flashes of instrumental brilliance, which — unlike most rock music made by prodigious performers — thankfully stops short of egregious complexity and remains playfully compelling. Also, perhaps as a statement of Bird’s conscious humility and child-like wonder toward his craft, he’s obsessed with whistling. In fact, Andrew Bird is an expert whistler if ever there was one.
Like Frank Zappa before him, Bird is a musical genius capable of playing incredibly complicated and challenging material, but isn’t under the impression that he needs to spend his entire performing and recording career proving it. While Zappa supplemented his pyrotechnical classical and jazz-fusion works with comedic, political and sexual indulgence, Bird dodges the overzealous musical pitfalls that’ve plagued many gifted rockers (like Rush, Yes, et al.) by remaining modest and at times even uncomfortable in his increasingly public life. By means of whistling and treating songwriting as a playground, Andrew Bird has fun.
As far as whistling goes, Bird told ABC News earlier this year that it’s a “personal, casual way of making music” for him, and the only negative thing about whistling is the attention it brings.
“I had to get over the idea that it was so easy,” he said, “because I’ve played the violin since the age of 4 and it’s an incredibly difficult instrument to learn; and [now] I find out that it’s just whistling is what everyone is impressed by.”
On the contrary, performing on a stage complete with an oddly huge (and working) old-fashioned gramophone at the Ogden Theater in Denver this past February, Bird sometimes seemed immortal via his ability to not only write transcendent indie-folk ditties at once whimsical and profound but also command the loop station surrounding him while executing his enchanting compositions. For many songs, Bird would record a mellifluous pizzicato line on his violin; press a pedal to loop it; whistle a blithely devious tune and then loop it; and then sing, play electric guitar and violin, and whistle while his accomplished band filled out the rest of the song, effortlessly playing in time with multiple loops. Periodically, I couldn’t help thinking that Andrew Bird was the one who must’ve sold his soul at the crossroads to become an otherworldly musician, not Robert Johnson.
And then there’s the matter of Bird’s loquacious lyrics. Like Bob Dylan circa Blonde on Blonde and Paul Simon’s “angels in the architecture”-type beatific rambling, many of Bird’s lyrics arose from a concern over the sound and feeling of words rather than concrete meaning. For Bird, who sometimes visits botanical gardens and field museums for linguistic inspiration, lyrics don’t necessarily have to be about something to be something. Thus, there’s a direct (but not necessarily derivative) procession from classic Dylan lines like “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” to modern Bird verses such as “squint your eyes and no one dies or goes to jail / past the silver bridge… wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil.”
Which isn’t to say that words, for Andrew Bird, are just there to fill in the time between whistles and extraordinary kaleidoscopic bursts of violin.
In the aforementioned interview with ABC News, Bird mused, “I used to wonder, ‘Are my albums just a demo tape of what I’m capable of doing?’ Now I realize that the most challenging thing I can do as a musician is write a very simple, concise melody that stands out. When you’re writing, you want to escape the every-day, matter-of-fact state of mind and the end result is that it’ll do that for the listener [as well].”
On January’s Noble Beast, Bird’s fifth studio album, he revealed the most accessible, crisp and pleasurable songs of his career, but really sacrificed nothing in terms of musical or lyrical integrity. In fact, as Bird continues to thwart the role of heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriter, he is using lyrics less often as meaningless, cryptic steppingstones and more like works of art you can get something new out of with each listen. He’s using rare language you sometimes need an encyclopedia to understand, but Bird’s lyrical gardens also sprout beauty and wonder alongside astonishment.
Even in the case of a verse like “underneath the stalactites / the troglodytes lost their sight / the seemingly innocuous plecostomus though posthumous / they talk to us,” Bird is interested in multiple paths of meaning, not just throwing the proverbial spaghetti at the recording studio wall, as he told NPR’s All Things Considered in February.
“I’m attracted to more archaic words because they can be imbued with more meaning, because their definition is elusive. [But] I can’t seem to go all the way and just completely make up a new language. I don’t write poetry and then strum some chords and fit the words on top,” he said. “If one thing is fixed and then the words have to conform to the fixed melodies, then it’s like cracking codes.”
In the case of Useless Creatures, the instrumental bonus companion released alongside Noble Beast, there are no codes to crack, just an album-length virtual neo-classical clinic that leaves no questions as to what Bird is “capable of doing.” It’s as if Noble Beast was the pudding before the meat of Useless Creatures, which I’d venture to call the best disc of 2009 thus far.
Luckily, those making the trek to Red Rocks for Bird’s performance there on Tuesday will get both the pudding and the meat, in no particular order. And if you’re eager to show this multi-instrumentalist phenomenon that his whistling isn’t all you’re impressed by, I dare you to show up in nothing but a onesie and a veil.
Adam Perry writes a music-related blog called Beautiful Buzz at www.adamperrywrites.wordpress.com
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On the Bill
Andrew Bird and Ra Ra Riot open for Death Cab for Cutie
at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14,
at Red Rocks Amphitheatre,
18300 W. Alameda Pkwy.,
Alone in a crowd
Rhett Miller's bandmates send him on a solo tour
by L. Kent Wolgamott
There’s a reason that Rhett Miller makes solo albums — his band.
The singer and primary songwriter for the Old 97’s, Miller is a prolific writer who spins out more songs than his band can possibly record. But more to the point, there are some songs that the rest of the Old 97’s don’t want to record.
“It’s the orneriness of my bandmates in the Old 97’s,” Miller said, explaining why he goes solo every few years. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing. Everybody has a veto. A lot of ideas get shouted down by the senators. I’ve always had a lot of songs the Old 97s aren’t interested in.
Years ago, I said, ‘I’ve got to make solo records or I’ll go crazy.’”
Miller has just fended off insanity with Rhett Miller, a new solo album that is, arguably, his best set of songs ever.
The other Old 97’s have no problem with Miller’s solo work. A big reason is that they get the first shot at his songs.
“There’s a point right before I go into a studio to make a solo record that I give them a chance at the songs,” Miller said. “There are some songs, like ‘Happy Birthday, Don’t Die’ on this record, that I know are for a solo record. But I’ll play them for the Old ‘97’s. I know what they’re going to like, but I give them dibs anyway.”
On occasion, Miller said, his bandmates make some baffling choices. They, for example, repeatedly rejected “Another Girlfriend,” a funny, insightful tune that’s one of the standouts on Rhett Miller.
“They turned it down, but I didn’t let it go away because I thought it was good,” he said. “It has a weird, kind of funny point of view. Maybe it was too personal for them, but it’s good.”
The offbeat lyrics in “Another Girlfriend,” which suggests that a guy doesn’t need girlfriends in multiples, are typical of Miller, whose lyrics are often personal and quirky.
“I can step back and see how it would be hard for other people to sing my songs,” Miller said. “I’m always infusing myself or something special into the songs. I read lots of poetry and short stories, and the whole idea of detail is important to me. It makes it more of ‘you’ if you can throw in the nitty-gritty details.”
While he doesn’t write specifically for his solo work or just for the Old 97s, there are some big differences when it comes to getting the songs recorded.
“The Old 97’s, those guys know what they’re going to do. I give them points here and there, but I’m typically hands off,” Miller said.
“On the solo record, you hire people you trust, but I’ve got to be there for it because it’s just me.”
This is Miller’s third solo effort this decade, and fans will notice something a little different about Rhett Miller. The new album is a collection of rock songs, which is a change from the alt-country sound that Miller and the Old 97’s are known for.
Originally, the cover art for the album was done in sepia tones and washed-out browns that hinted at the Old West, but Miller stepped in and changed all that to make sure there would be no confusion about the content.
“I don’t want people to pick up a record and think there’s going to be tumbleweeds and dusty roads,” he said. “There’s some of that on there, but there’s a lot of space age with ray guns.”
The songs on Rhett Miller are rooted in what he called the “classic vinyl” era of the mid-to-late ’60s and early ’70s.
A warm, melodic, guitar-driven collection, the album contains a few modern studio tricks, like a fuzzy drumbeat provided by singing through headphones plugged into a microphone jack. But they are few and far between.
“If you like something, why screw it up just for the sake of screwing it up?” he said. “There’s stuff on the record that couldn’t have been done 40 years ago. I sing about stuff that wouldn’t have been around then. It’s a little bit modern, but still classic.”
Miller will be playing his new songs live this summer when he opens shows for the Old 97’s, but those will be solo guitar-only affairs.
Once the band wraps up its tour, Miller will hit the road again for a solo sojourn in the fall.
“This is a bunch of rock songs,” Miller said. “It’s going to be fun to go out and play them.”
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On the Bill
The Old 97’s perform with Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 16, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.
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