Wednesday, 4 February 2009

RECORD REVIEW: Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

Andrew Bird’s always been a bit of a mystery. Capable of delivering both oddball verbosity and tailored elegance in one fell swoop, the Chicago-born troubadour cuts a nomadic figure when traipsing through the industry’s unruly queue of PR skirt-chasing. Yet he consistently produces the sort of ditties slobbering A&R toads sodden their tighty-whities over: innovative, consuming melodies with the dexterity to moisten tear-ducts or flutter the strings of the soul. A sure-fire cash cow in many worlds. Not Andrew Bird’s.

You see, his senses are swayed by more extraordinary pleasures; be they Weather System’s neo-jazz swings [2003], the esoteric monologues of The Mysterious Production Of Eggs [2005] or Armchair Apocrypha’s [2007] pensive collusion with science. Whatever the guise, his typicality has always been untypical of us, the everyday punter. While we steadily progress on our linear, predefined routes, Bird’s pathway zigs, zags, pirouettes and rotates before reaching its destination, armed with the allure of both story and song.

Weighing in at six-minutes shy of an hour, Bird’s fourth studio album, Noble Beast, should feel more journeyed than the shorter endeavours folded away in his, now bulging, archive. Instead it’s lighter, daintier even; as if shorn of responsibility and obstruction. The quilt of melody upon which his crooning tones once laid have been replaced by a brittle, straw packed under-sheet that takes time to embrace but, after a few restless nights of tossing and turning, grows as a soothing comforter for the soul.

Introduced by the pursed-lip blows of Bird’s familiar meandering whistle, inaugural number ‘Oh No‘ begins with a massaging palm of string and drum. Arrangement-wise, it’s characteristic of the man’s past glories- swooning, bulbous chorus preluded by slinky violin fanfares - yet, such is the willingness of tone, it rubberstamps a definite shunt forward in expressionism, even if a curious glee is induced by his pledges of being at one with “the harmless sociopaths”.

Delivering on this early promise, the advancing numbers of Noble Beast congregate as an organic array of tune that beams beyond Armchair Apocrypha’s dense aural midst. The touching ‘Masterswarm’ sets out with a slowburning contortion of brittle fret plucks before sparking kinetically into blizzards of instrumentation and diction. Likewise, doom-laden canticle ‘Effigy’ arrives under cloaked fiddle strains, slowly unravelling as a purposeful sway that has Bird agonising over his own insularity.

Of course, the linguistic acrobatics remain as impressive as ever; his recital of tongue-knotting stanzas during ‘Tenuousness’’s harpsichordal flurry is executed with such rapidity they hum like a voluptuous musical accompaniment. But this is not a habitual collection of inner-monologues scattered bare across fully developed euphonies - there’s less bafflement to these tales. The mesmerising ‘Anonanimal’ may be rife with dramatic vicissitudes of guitar, drum and key, but his words are non-conflicted and the production bleeds purity. It’s the sound of a man coming to terms with the contours of his own skin.

Yet, Noble Beast is not without flaw. In fact, imperfections are bruised across the record’s spine like blows from a cracked whip. The laboured ‘Fitz & Dizzyspell’s conduces heavy eyelids with its dreary, poker-faced gushing; ‘Nomenclature’’s cumbersome strains leave its final crescendo blunt and withered, failing to emerge from the tedious slipstream; and ‘Natural Disaster’’s creeping strings and arid backdrop do little to rescue what is, in essence, an undeveloped, shovelled-up lament.

Sadly, these lulls rein in an album threatening to take flight with two cuts that prove Bird’s lost none of his idiosyncratic mastery. ‘Not A Robot, But A Ghost’’s twitching, saw-buzzard backdrop transcends into a thrill of experimentation, with glorious robotic Tropicalia glazed atop the grimy canvas of looping, gyrating effects. A startling moment, for sure, but it’s surpassed by the magnificent ‘Souverain’. Easing in with a mournful Spaghetti Western whistle, it develops as a hopelessly contradictory ballad - both downbeat and lustful - that swells with orchestrated hooks and ponderous wordplay.

Perfectly poised, this elegant, heart-pumping climax brings an often luscious, sometimes languid, record to a fitting conclusion. Far from refuting suggestions of esoteric sauntering, Noble Beast’s quirky trove lends itself to a man playing ball in an entirely different court; one without structure, boundary or cash-money ambition. But, hey, you know Andrew Bird - he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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