Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Bird is ‘Noble Beast’

Andrew Bird Noble Beast (2009, Fat Possum)Andrew Bird has spent the last six years or so carving out a niche for himself. Since shying away from jazz revival and picking up the guitar, his pop records –– “Weather Systems,” “The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” and “Armchair Apocrypha” – have transformed into increasingly unique things, with unpredictable turns, substantial shifts in instrumentation and Bird’s voice becoming increasingly expressive as his lyrics get more obtuse.

On “Noble Beast,” his fourth solo record and eighth overall, a strange thing happens. Unlike “Armchair Apocrypha,” which overflowed with hooks yet proved itself strikingly replayable, “Beast” requires patient listening to find anything substantial and from the outset, it looks bad. There’s nowhere near as much electric guitar or whistling, too many slow songs and backup vocals on at least a quarter of the record. These songs are more expansive yet more prone to twists and turns.  

Consider “Masterswarm” and its non-sequitur introduction, followed by its minute-long violin solo before fading out over almost a minute into a skeletal drum loop, or “Effigy’s” country-tinged bridge. Only “Oh No” and “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” are immediate, with the former recalling “Armchair” highlight “Heretics,” and the latter being driven by a propulsive guitar lead before hitting with a soaring chorus.  

“Soldier on,” Bird croons as his newly expanded band – now consisting of percussionist/keyboardist Martin Dosh and bassist Jeremy Ylvisaker – does just that.

More striking, then, is the record’s second half, as the songs get longer and even stranger.  

Bird’s biggest triumph is likely “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” which feels much more like a Dosh instrumental than one of Bird’s own compositions, fueled entirely on buzzing percussion and restrained piano-playing. It comes to a sudden halt before kicking back in, prompting Bird to give a striking Thom Yorke impression as he moans over the song’s drums.  

“Anonanimal” is given over almost entirely to Dosh’s percussion, which works wonders; the two songs together do a lot to counter notions of Bird having gone adult-contemporary.  

“Natural Disaster” works almost entirely on the strengths of Bird’s voice, using a number of aching melodies to stunning effect.  

Near-closer “Souverian” employs a two-part structure, beginning as song-as-therapy and ending on an ambiguous note that quietly fades out.  

“Beast” is a flawed record, but one that often proves itself worthwhile. Mark Nevers’ production – as it has been on Lambchop’s entire discography and on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Lie Down in the Light, among others – is wonderful. Bird’s violin and vocal performances sound almost perfect, and their undeniable warmth enriches the overall product considerably.  

Additionally, the album’s bonus disc, a collection of instrumentals called “Useless Creatures,” plays like an expanded version of Bird’s interludes, many of which are more immediate and approachable than the overlong moments and surprisingly unquotable lyrics of its pop companion.  

“Beast” is likely Bird’s first misstep, but even his missteps could destroy at least half the low-key folk-pop released in the last twenty years.

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