The beautiful noise of Andrew Bird
ASPEN Listen to Armchair Apocrypha, the latest CD by Andrew Bird, and you can pick up the echoes of plenty of other distinguished artists: the melodicism and lush instrumentation of Rufus Wainwright, the dynamic climaxes of Radiohead; the understated vocals of Jeff Buckley. Go further back in Birds catalogue, and the echoes stack up to include David Byrne and Wilco, strains of Latin, swing, gypsy and various forms of early rock n roll.Bird spent much of his youth soaking up influences. A violinist who studied the Suzuki method from the age of 4, he soon discovered vintage styles: country blues, early jazz, Anglo ballads. But now, at 35 years of age and with 10 albums to his credit, Bird is more or less done soaking up influences. Instead, he is listening to himself.At this point, Im pretty much far away from my influences, said Bird by phone from near Pocatello, where he had just finished a day of hiking with his family. I started out being influenced by early-20th century, stuff from before the recording era. I had an old Victrola and went out fishing for 78s.You start out thinking, you have your record collection and this is about as good as it gets: I want to write just like that but maybe with more interesting lyrics.It was clear early on, however, that Bird would do more than affix more complex words to old tunes and well-worn styles. Possibly the first hint of his musical ambitions was when he started trying to imitate his jazz heroes, tenor saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Lester Young on his violin. Eventually Birds creative vision grew; he wanted to listen to himself, rather than his influences.Over time I got more greedy with wanting to write the whole song, said Bird. Now, I dont know where the songs come from. Whole melodies leap into my head for no particular reason.In fact, Bird does have at least some clues as to where his creativity comes from. Its a geographical place, rather than an artist or a strain of music.Bird was born in Chicago and still lives there, though he also spends time on a farm he bought several years ago north of the city. Chicago, long known as home of the electric blues, has more recently been identified with an independent-minded, enormously eclectic brand of music that combines jazz, rock and more, with an emphasis on individuality. Perhaps the most acclaimed example is the instrumental band Tortoise, which has received a good share of credit for developing the post-rock movement in the 90s. Bird has not been far behind; recording first for Rykodisc, and then Ani DiFrancos Righteous Babe label, he has earned the attention of Mojo magazine, which named his live release Fingerlings 2 as its Album of the Month in December 2004; and the London Independent, which raved that Bird could do for independent American music what Tarantino did for American cinema. Despite the independent tag, he has appeared at such mammoth festivals as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.Bird traces his unusual brand of creativity, which results in something genuinely unique on each album, to Chicago.Its another place, like Minneapolis or Iceland, where in the winter, people have to disappear and make art to avoid going crazy, he said, adding that, in his view, Chicagos art-music scene may be diminished from what it was a decade ago. Theres an emphasis on hard word, and a lack of flashiness. Theyre kind of cold, industrial, sometimes bleak places, and in the spring people come out of the woodwork and show people what theyve done.In Birds description, the Chicago music scene is like a place where artists become, for a sizable chunk of the year, so sealed off from the world that influences, either from old records or from an exchange between contemporaries, fade away, allowing more unique, detached visions to emerge. And when the Chicago winter isnt desolate enough, Bird retreats to his farm, where he maintains a studio. This is what he did several years ago, when he hibernated for two years, and returned to civilization with the 2003 album Weather Systems. It was a work that clearly came from some internal depths; there were songs titled I and ~ (and another that I cant even figure out how to type on my keyboard it looks like a backward-facing arrow). Remarkably spare in texture, it featured instruments like space guitar and Birds employing the pizzicato, or plucking technique on his violin.Im very aware of that pattern, and how it affects me, said Bird of his habit of disappearing from the Chicago winters and entering his creative mode. I try never to get into a rut. Youve got to make yourself a little uncomfortable to make sure youre on your toes. I dont know if Ill do that extreme isolation again, but its important to get quietude, to turn off the radio and see whats going on in your own head and find out what youre really thinking.The thoughts swirling around Birds head tend to be deep. Or if not, he gives every impression that his thought process is on a different plane than that of your standard pop musician.Take his latest album, released in March 2007 on Fat Possum (a label which typically issues rough-edged blues). The title, Armchair Apocrypha, is hard to pronounce, much less understand. Such songs as Imitosis, Plasticities and Darkmatter are filled with words like machinations and palindromes and Scythian; it can seem as if Bird is challenging himself not so much to expand his vocabulary, but to choose the most difficult words to sing. But in Birds hands, and with a backing of violin, Glockenspiel and guitars is usually as gentle as rainfall, the words become poetry, musical statements of their own.Bird confirms it is music he is after, rather than too coherent a message (though concerns with the environment and the danger of corporatization do make their way through the dense wordplay). He says he is not looking to send listeners scurrying for the dictionary.Not to the degree that it means exclusion, he said. Ultimately the words are important, but Im more a melody person. The subject matter Im just trying to talk about stuff, something interesting. I have an aversion to academic-sounding stuff.And sometimes, Bird admits, hes not even sure what hes singing about. Apocrypha, for instance he assumed the word had some connection to apocalypse. (Not even close. Apocrypha are writings or information of dubious authenticity or truth.)I didnt know what it means either, he said. But I like having conversations with people about what it means. Bird says he often comes up with a word-of-the-year, and uses it in conversation and in his writing. Apocrypha was one recent such word.The other factor that pushes Birds music toward the uncommon is the choice of instruments. Violin remains his main instrument, and when he performs unaccompanied, as he sometimes does, he loops his sounds and manipulates them for a rhythmic quality. He can also make the violin sound like the deeper-toned cello.It gets pretty orchestral sounding, he said. And also, very improvisatory at the same time.Birds other instruments include Glockenspiel and guitar; on recordings, he has surrounded himself with tubas, vibes, marimbas and more. And those whistling sounds that is Bird, whistling, one of his specialties.When Bird makes his Aspen debut, Friday at Belly Up Aspen, fans who have been awaiting his arrival here might get an initial jolt at how ordinary-looking the set-up is. Bird will be joined by Martin Dosh on drums and keyboards, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, and Mike Lewis, playing his first gig with Bird, on bass. (Dosh, Birds most regular collaborator, also opens the show with a set of his own.)Aside from the violin, it looks like a four-piece rock band, said Bird. But it doesnt sound like one. Everyone in the band is good at manipulating beautiful noise at the right time and the right place.
Andrew Bird performs Friday at Belly Up Aspen, 450 S. Galena St., with an opening set by Dosh at 10 p.m. Tickets are $28. Doors open at 8 firstname.lastname@example.org
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