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Self-proclaimed “singer, violinist, whistler,” Andrew Bird has come to be recognized as one of the more refined, yet accessible musicians in today’s popular indie rock scene. This classically trained artist’s instruments are not sopping wet with effects and reverb, his concerts don’t utilize gaudy light displays, and his poetic lyrics don’t make contemporary pop culture references (in fact quite the opposite is true with Bird’s numerous biblical allusions on this latest album). If Bird’s music can be classified into two styles, that of the violinist or the fiddler, Bird’s March release, Break it Yourself, features the violinist, and October’s Hands of Glory presents the fiddler in his most pure form.
The music video for the opening track “Three White Horses” offers a revealing look into the single microphone, barnyard recording process behind Hands of Glory. The leading bassline of “Three White Horses” continuously builds underneath the lyrics “You’re gonna to need somebody when you come to die,” as a swelling guitar starts ambling around the echoey, wooden room. Throughout the rest of the album, Bird’s thoughts about death are presented in this most peculiar contrasting of the warm instrumental recording, and the dismal lyrical content.
Bird’s covers of The Handsome Family’s “When That Helicopter Comes”, Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” and the Alpha Consumer’s “Spirograph” all evoke sobering imagery of biblical end times. How Bird is able to tenderly present this potentially taboo topic in a way that keeps the listener from falling into a frantic anxiety is fascinating. For example, “When The Helicopter Comes” describes a very clear picture of that proposed final day, as Bird sings “The sky will swim in lightning fire / and the trees will shake and scream.” Surprisingly, these challenging thoughts don’t turn me off, but instead encourage me to stay tuned into what feels like a special compilation program on some abandoned AM radio station.
Andrew is playing a few dates in select Chicago and New York churches soon, which are a relaunch of his “Gezelligheid” concert series. This Dutch word, “Gezelligheid” can be translated to mean “cozy,” and that seems like just the context in which this album was intended to be heard. The biblical imagery (one song is even called “Something Biblical”), unhurried tempo, and uncluttered mastering of these songs surely amounts to something much warmer and “cozier” than what is coming out of my plastic desktop speakers (which is exactly why the upcoming intimate performances will only be amplified by Bird’s signature giant Victrola horns).
If any of the song’s on Hands of Glory doesn’t exactly seem to make sense along with the others, it is “Railroad Bill.” This twangy cover of an Alan Lomax recording dates back as far as 1939. Bird’s version isn’t overly withdrawn, but it certainly comes across as a primarily fun, jam-worthy opportunity for the talented band to show their chops, and not so much a contribution to the album’s discussion of the reality of death. But hey, maybe that’s exactly how this uptempo, cheery for-the-sake-of-it track found it’s way onto the release, to add some range of emotion.
As far as foot-tapping, air-bowing Birdian music is concerned, Hands of Glory does not fit the usual quasi-pop mold, and I’ve got no reason to believe that’s a bad thing. It’s already common knowledge that Bird has been whistling catchy melodies longer than Edward Sharpe and Peter Bjorn & John combined, so nobody needs to be frustrated when they realize he has left the whistling behind on this latest record. These eight songs don’t claim to have Billboard top 100 aspirations (as if any of Bird’s music ever has), but instead they have this humble, vintage aura surrounding them, which is perfectly fitting when considering the unassuming recording process. Andrew seems to be quite comfortable with his status as a popular musician, and oh so free is the Bird we find on Hands of Glory.