Andrew Bird has worn many hats over the years – professional whistler, ‘20s jazz aficionado, New York Times guest-blogger – but the one that fits best is solo artist. Since abandoning his band, Bowl of Fire, and going solo with 2003’s “& The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” the Chicago-based troubadour has built an impressive catalog, from “Eggs” to his latest release, “Noble Beast.”
A gifted multi-instrumentalist and genre dabbler, Bird is as comfortable on the classical violin as he as playing rock guitar. On his previous release, 2007’s “Armchair Apocrypha,” he added the percussive assault of experimental drummer Martin Dosh to great effect on tracks such as “Simple X,” but let too many of the songs drift into sleepy balladry.
“Noble Beast” is a more balanced effort, an album that shows off all of his musical sides as well as his magnificent wordplay. Opening track “Oh No” begins with the pastoral sweep of his violins and a folksy whistle, with the song turning enjoyably silly when it adds handclaps and a sputtering electric guitar. Bird’s songs have always walked the line between free-spirited fun and somber craftsmanship, and the new material is as effective at this as ever, sounding both carefully arranged and exuberantly performed.
The album’s best songs are the ones that find the folkie stretching into new territory. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” is a sort of counterpoint to Kayne West’s futuristic “808s & Heartbreak” – the song coasts on crinkling beats even as it finds solace in very human emotions after a break-up. If Bird were a painter, his lyrics would be more impressionistic than photo-real – his lines focus on sound as much as storytelling.
“Anonanimal” begins with syllables spilling out of his crooner’s tenor: “I see a sea anemone / see an enemy… that’ll be the end of me,” he utters in one breath. Like many of the songs on “Beast,” the track is an adventure, dropping into a hip-hop-inspired groove briefly mid-song before building to a guitar-led climax.
With peers such as Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright lying low lately, Bird continues to push his music forward. The energy of the album ebbs and flows throughout, much like Bird’s classic, “Eggs” – and like that release before it, “Beast” has as much bite as it does bark.
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