Thursday, November 19, 2009

But And Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

My countdown of my favorite 26 albums of the past decade continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.
3 is here.

2. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Righteous Babe, 2005

Back in 2005, I had read a good review of Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs in Magnet magazine, back when they used to produce a great bimonthly magazine instead of the utterly useless weekly e-mails they now send out. Anyway, several days afterward, I was in my local Borders, and I noticed they had the album on one of those listening stations (back when they used to have them). I put on the headphones, hit the Play button, and I’m shocked. It’s really lame, boring, 80s-style arena rock. Blecch....Okay, so I had hit the wrong button. Fine. But, as it turns out, the button I wanted to hit was broken and didn’t work. So I went home and went to Bird’s Web site and found samples of all the songs there. (Explain to me again why there is any point in leaving the house?) I liked what I heard so I went to CD Universe and ordered the album. It arrived, I ripped it to MP3, copied it to my iPod, and it became car music for a few short- and long-range errands and while it didn’t immediately grab me, after a few cycles I began to really get into it. Four years later, it has not left my iPod, I listen to it now at least once or twice a month, and I have since acquired the entire Andrew Bird discography and seen him live at least once. I love this record.

Andrew Bird is a multi-instrumentalist known primarily for violin and whistling (he actually won awards for his whistling, which wasn’t something I knew you could win awards for) and was distinguished by being a member of a band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers which flirted with popularity in 1996–1997 with a track called “Hell” during that brief faux-big band revival (I have that album and they had like 500 members, so the chances are pretty good that any given musician was at one time a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers). Bird’s first three solo albums were done under the rubric of a band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, and were very roots-oriented. They were like an artesian well that delved down through all these historical styles of American music, yet it was all leavened by Bird’s strange lyrical preoccupations, which were often odd interpretations of science, and often involved various types of meats and lines like “it wasn’t long ago just before the reign of Nero/We had no concept of zero.” He’s right, you know. His 2003 album Weather Systems went off in a strange new direction, one which culminated two years later with The Mysterious Production of Eggs.

The Mysterious Production of Eggs is hard to describe musically; take a bunch of styles from country to folk to bluegrass to classical to rock and throw them in a blender and you’ve pretty much got the album. Still, I find most of it to be hauntingly beautiful—and the lyrics tend to be more on the surreal side and also tend to be hauntingly beautiful. And you find yourself singing along to the strangest things. The album opens with a short instrumental that uses a trope from Weather Systems of naming songs using weird squiggles, done to flummox iTunes, methinks (which renders it as “/=/”). For the rest of the record, Bird acts as a sort of tour guide through a bizarre dreamworld, and yet one that seems oddly familiar in a way. Bird likes words, and often works them into songs before looking them up. So the first real song on the album is “Sovay” which, Wikipedia tells us, is “a traditional English folk song about a young woman who dresses and arms herself as a highwayman in order to test her suitor.” (Gee, that could actually be a Decemberists song—oops, what a giveaway...) Instead, Bird goes off about “I was getting ready to consider my next plan of attack/I think I’m gonna sack/The whole board of trustees/all those Don Quixotes in their B-17s.” The keyboards, acoustic guitar, plucked violin, and whistling render it a very beautiful song.

“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” begins sensibly enough with a spare acoustic guitar accompaniment: “We had survived to/Turn on the History Channel/And ask our esteemed panel/Why are we alive?/And here’s how they replied/You’re what happens when two substances collide.” Then the whistling, electric guitar, and mutant violin all kick in and Bird sings about being “Stretched out on the tarmac/Six miles South of North Platte/He can’t stand to look back/At sixteen ton of HAZMAT.” It’s a very beautiful song.

Honestly, I have no idea what the title “Fake Palindromes” has to do with the actual song, and yet it’s my favorite on the album. Well, one of them. “My dewy-eyed Disney bride/What has tried/Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?/Monsters?” But then “She says ‘I like long walks and sci-fi movies’/You’re six foot tall and East Coast bred/Some lonely night we can get together/And I’m gonna tie your wrists with leather/And drill a tiny hole into your head.” It’s the loudest most raucous song on the album, featuring wild percussion, mutant violins, and fuzztone guitar.

A track later, “Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game/Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain/We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.” Oh, like high school. “A tale that’s rather grim and gory/Is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed?/When the tales of Brothers Grimm and Gorey/Have been outlawed.” At the end, “That’s all for questioning/the case is closed!” It’s a beautiful song. “Banking on a Myth” gets you to sing along to lines like “From Star Search to the Philharmonic/He’ll get you there with Hooked On Phonics.” The squonking guitar and equally squonking violin make you want to “Join his entourage/He’ll give you a foot massage.” And in a reference to a past album, “There stands a handsome bid on the weather systems of the world.”

In “Masterfade,” the “sky is full of zeroes and ones.” Still, “You took my hand and led me down to watch a kewpie doll parade/We let the kittens lick our hair and drink our chalky lemonade.” But “what does it matter/If we’re all matter?” There then follows a whistling solo that makes you understand why he won awards for it. But then “Zeroes make a smiley face as they come floating down from the heavens.” It’s quite a beautiful song.

Then there’s “Opposite Day.” “I got home this morning,” he begins, “with the sun right in my eyes/And there was no warning as it took me by surprise/Hit me like an act of god/Causing my alarm/That I’d not become a cephalopod.” A logical concern, of course. Do you know how many points he gets in my book for using the term “cephalopod”? I often find myself alarmed that I’m not a cephalopod. “Today was s’posed to be the day/Molecules decide to change their form/The laws of physics lose their sway.” And “Youthful indiscretion is suddenly the norm/With the good kids growing horns.” Sounds worth looking forward to.

“Skin Is, My” puts lyrics to an instrumental on Weather Systems. “Waiting for that macramé bird of prey to come down and sing.” But “Let it be printed on every T-shirt in the land on the finest of cotton.” Oh, what a lovely sound. It’s another raucous song that melds plucked violin, electric guitar, loud percussion, and other sounds that defy ready identification.

“The Naming of Things” starts by quoting Groucho Marx, “You remind me of you.” Then Bird goes on about “Memories like mohair sweaters/Stretched and pilled faux distressed letters/Moose’s horns and figure eights/White plastic bags in search of mates/What suffocates the land/Is memory of garbage can.”

It goes on...”MX Missiles” (“Are you made of calcium or are you carbon-based?”) “Tables and Chairs” (“Just don’t let the human factor fail to be a factor”), and “The Happy Birthday Song” round out this remarkable, stunning record. It’s certainly the oddest album I’ve listened to in a while, and I mean that in the nicest possible way because it’s one of the most satisfying. Oh, and once again, great CD booklet graphics. And, hey, the whistling is award-winning.

His follow up, 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, is probably better (“Fiery Crash” being my usual pre-flight iPod ritual and “Imitosis” being one of the best songs ever) but it’s all about context. His latest record, 2009’s Noble Beast, is also really really good.

Interesting thing about Bird live...his songs live never sound the same as the studio versions, or indeed the same from gig to gig. I read an interview with him where he finds it a weakness as a musician to play a song the same way twice. He often reinterprets songs and makes up new arrangements on the spot. Pretty cool.

To be continued...

No comments: