When Andrew Bird recorded Break It Yourself he found himself with a separate collection of songs along a slightly different theme, which wouldn’t have fit as well on that record. The followup EP, Hands of Glory, has a decidedly western slant to it, featuring Appalachian fiddle more strongly than the lush and soaring violin of the album released earlier this year.
‘Three White Horses’ is an absolutely gorgeous opener, and has the sound of a deeply intimate and personal song. The lyrics are open to interpretation, which is often the case with Bird’s music, and what really matters is that the sounds create mental imagery and emotional cues with grace and ease. This will be a very popular record among synaesthetes.
Hands of Glory features less than subtle religious themes and a more than passing interest in mortality, getting a little bit darker in places than other songs from the Break It Yourself sessions, but it never feels depressing. Andrew Bird is able to explore these areas without becoming weighed down by them.
The EP features a few covers. ‘If I Needed’ you is a Townes Van Zandt tune made famous by versions performed by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, brought seamlessly into Bird’s realm. The cover songs are hard to distinguish from the originals, and in a couple of cases I found myself wondering if he had really written what sounded like classics. He did.
‘Railroad Bill’ is a true bluegrass tune, telling the tale of a train-riding vagrant provoking the law. Railroad Bill is a folk hero, sung of by artists such as Etta Baker, but while this is a song with great history there is also a tradition of seeing it change quite a bit from one interpretation to the next, much like the story of the man who inspired it. Whether he’s lighting his cigars with $10 bills, or rolling them up in with them, this is a folk classic and Bird’s version is stellar. The EP tells stories in a way not very common in modern music, which is not only the case with the cover songs.
In addition to this form of storytelling, there is also Bird’s more subtle and intentionally open to interpretation poetry. ‘Something Biblical’ weaves metaphor and meaning from a plea to the lord, a bad farm season, or lost love. ‘Orpheo’ uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a metaphor for the creative process. If you’re into finding the deeper meaning, and songs with the potential to grow over repeated listens, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of these eight tracks.
Andrew Bird can sometimes seem to struggle to find a unique quality for each song, but this release features a number of movements that change the tone of the record and offer new stylistic adventures, where the violin is fused with country music in more different ways than there are tracks on the album. The sounds are deceptively complex, and each song comes across as very simple despite the layered and diverse arrangements subtly playing beneath Bird’s soulful croon.
Hands of Glory ends with a long instrumental which builds off of the themes of the opening track, ‘Three White Horses’. Here on ‘Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses’ the listener is taken on a melancholy trot through one of Bird’s strongest musical landscapes. It begins to feel a bit sinister, but pulls around at the end and returns us to simpler times, as if we never left.
I think it’s a brilliant album, but a more measured review would be that it is at least worth listening to if you have even a passing interest in folk or bluegrass. If you’re a fan of Andrew Bird this release is one of his most successful in taking your ear on specific and carefully laid musical journeys.
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Image Courtesy of Mom & Pop Music
It’s rare that a musician comes along in popular music with a very wide range of ability, a true and pure artistry, and the willingness to package it all together for the world to enjoy. Even rarer still that the world should notice what it has been given, but Andrew Bird stands out.
Bird is a singer/songwriter who has a bit of everything going for him. He’s a very talented multi-instrumentalist, primarily known for his violin, but he also prominently features the guitar, glockenspiel, and even his own whistling. He has been able to distill his own special auditory brew using these tools, without it becoming at all weird or hard to listen to. The songs he writes approach relatable human issues from new and intriguing angles, and are cleverly delivered without a lot of pretense.
Break It Yourself is an album full of love songs, but it would be hard to know that at times without paying close attention. Bird can be very subtle, and has a knack for weaving a delicate metaphor, or looking at personal matters and stories from a far-reaching and philosophical vantage point. When he does come right out and say how he feels, then, it only has more power behind it, and seems to bring clarity to the emotional landscape he’s been painting all along.
Bird was trained from a very young age to play the violin using the Suzuki method, which conditions artists to become very adept and naturally in tune with their instrument, shifting towards more traditional musical education later on. It’s a popular and well-respected method for classical violinists, but is probably even better suited to one like Andrew Bird, who is a great all-around performer with a touch of a rock star in him.
One criticism of the Suzuki method has always been that it stresses collaborative play over solo performances much more than the traditional method, but this has clearly not been a problem for Bird. He’s not only comfortable performing alone, but he often juggles his skills and instruments with loop pedals, becoming a one-man orchestra.
The songs on Break It Yourself are very complex and layered, but they come across as simple tunes, and are very easy to pick up and get into. Bird says he used to have a distaste for pop music, but today he seems much more willing to embrace widely listenable melodies and catchy hooks. The result should be nothing short of a revelation for popular music fans.
Though there are a lot of different techniques and influences on the record, the songs are not very dissimilar from one to the next, and he reaches into the same bag of tricks on almost every track. Andrew Bird’s growth and willingness to experiment appears to have slowed slightly here, with this his sixth solo release, but it’s hard to consider that sameness a very big fault on an album which is itself so very different from other music. It may not be particularly divergent from other Andrew Bird albums, but nobody else is doing what he does, and I wouldn’t want to see his techniques and sounds go extinct.
For many fans Break It Yourself will be regarded as Andrew Bird in perfect form. For the uninitiated, it’s a great spot to jump in.
Andrew Bird’s current tour is in its last gasp, but that doesn’t mean its over. The singer/songwriter is readying a new slate of gigs including a few churches. These shows are being dubbed as ‘Gezelligheid’, the Dutch term for coziness, and he is said to be focusing on his violin pieces during this stretch in Minneapolis (12/10-11) and Chicago (12/15-17).
In the press release, Bird said of the shows, “What I hope to do with these shows is adapt my music completely to the atmosphere of the space and the season,” Bird said in the statement. “I’m inspired to do this based on childhood memories of performing Handel’s Messiah in various churches on an annual basis. The music will be mostly original instrumentals using my voice only to intone. I want the audience to be both lifted and comforted as we head into another cold and dark winter. I feel the space should be sacred so the audience can experience my music in a different atmosphere.”
Bird’s latest album “Noble Beast” was released in January and shot up to number 1 on Billboard’s Top Independent Album Charts. The current Andrew Bird tour has hit 25 cities beginning in Los Angeles on July 20.
24 – Portland, ME – S. Portland High School Auditorium
25 – Philadelphia, PA – Electric Factory
26 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
27 – Providence, RI – Lupo’s
28 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
8 – Champaign, IL – Foellinger Hall – solo
10, 11 – Minneapolis, MN – St Mark’s Episcopal Church
15-17 – Chicago, IL – 4th Presbyterian Church
6 – Honolulu, HI – Pipeline Cafe
20 – Los Angeles, CA – Bovard Auditorium @ USC