ANDREW BIRD > Noble Beast

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Depending on your perspective, Andrew Bird is either inching closer toward the mainstream or is still about a thousand miles away from it. The violin-wielding and whistling singer/songwriter released his most listenable and melodic album, Armchair Apocrypha, in 2007.Label: FAT POSSUM
[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Depending on your perspective, Andrew Bird is either inching closer toward the mainstream or is still about a thousand miles away from it. The violin-wielding and whistling singer/songwriter released his most listenable and melodic album, Armchair Apocrypha, in 2007. It included things you’d expect from a 30-something, indie-rocker whose résumé includes gigs with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and a record on Ani DiFranco’s label: ringing guitars, baroque flourishes, surreal musings about faces stuck on vinyl sofas.
It’s an engaging and elegant work, one that nearly eclipses the artsy, chamber-pop of 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs. But it’s also an album that reveals just how much of an oddball Bird really is. Strip away the indie-pop trimmings, disregard his cool friends (My Morning Jacket, for starters), and dig deep into his dozen-year catalog, and you’ll uncover one of the most unconventional and idiosyncratic artists making records today. After all, this is a guy who breaks mid-song not for a guitar solo, but to whistle. Yes, whistle.

And Bird puckers up plenty of times on his eighth album, Noble Beast, a haunting and graceful collection that includes everything from a 58-second instrumental to a seven-minute epic. Bird and his backing band-who play everything from flutes and clarinets to “shortwave” and cardboard boxes-create an aural wonderland filled with dreamlike symphonies and organic rattles and hums.

Noble Beast begins with a plucked acoustic guitar, rolling gently beneath Bird’s soft whistle. Within 40 seconds, they’re weaved into “Oh No”‘s stream-of-consciousness wordplay: “In the salsify mains of what was thought but unsaid/All the calcified arythmatists were doing the math.” By the time he gets around to the buzzing chorus, Bird (or his protagonist-it’s never quite clear) is strolling “arm-in-arm with all the harmless sociopaths.”

That pretty much sets the course for Bird’s most motivated album. He keeps his more pretentious aspirations in check here, while notching a load of sounds that manage to draw some attention away from the whistling (after about four songs, the whistles can come off as a crutch or gimmick; at the very least, they’re annoying as hell if you’re anticipating a guitar, string or horn solo).

But Bird builds Noble Beast into a record of glistening beauty in a way that sorta justifies its quirks. As a singer, he rarely nudges his voice above a whisper, gliding delicately across the brushed drums and strummed strings like a willowy-wait for it-bird. As a lyricist, he rarely makes sense. On “Tenuousness,” he sings, “Here’s where things start getting weird.” No kidding; that acknowledgment is preceded by talk of “proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots/Who hang around the ports a lot.” Wha???

Still, on songs like the relatively rocking “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” “Nomenclature” (which culminates in a collision of instruments), and the Radiohead-like “Not a Robot, but a Ghost,” Bird constructs sturdy and occasionally tuneful structures of sound that rank among his most welcoming. Noble Beast is the work of an artist nibbling, somewhat reluctantly, at the hand of convention-whistling all the while, of course.

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