Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast, Fat Possum Records 2009
Alright my friend, what do more than half of the songs on Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast have in common with ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ by Bobby McFerrin, Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,’ The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian,’ Paul Simon’s ‘Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,’ John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy,’ and ‘Sissyneck,’ by Beck. Okay, anything yet? No? Well, what about Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger’ or ‘Patience’ by Guns and Roses? ‘Winds of Change’ by the Scorpions?
If you answered “songs” or “lyrics,” please go straight to jail. If you guessed musical accompaniment, pay school tax $150. However, if you knew that whistling was the only possible answer, enjoy the canned music blasting all around you as confetti drops from the sky, and advance straight to “Go.” Yes, Andrew Bird whistles throughout Noble Beast, but this is nothing new, since he’s done so throughout his extensive discography. Whistling is a venerable musical tradition that finds its lineage in the music hall and vaudeville circuits, but, as in most of the pop songs above, it’s usually a novelty, a decoration, an almost tacked on afterthought. However, for Andrew Bird it’s an integral part of his work, of his arrangements, his instrumentation. Notice its rhythmic variety and melodic sophistication, its warm and subtle vibrato, its tonal contrast and playful counterpoint to Bird’s violin solos, etc.
Andrew Bird, true to his name, is a songbird. But he’s also a sick violinist. On earlier recordings, especially his instrumental albums like Thrills, Bird has betrayed his debt to Stéphane Grappelli, the French jazz violinist who, along with guitarist Django Reinhardt, founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France. On Noble Beast, and especially live, Bird approaches the virtuosity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Jerry Goodman (surely we can think of his old band name, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, as a play off of the incendiary album Birds of Fire) and also the fusion maniac Jean-Luc Ponty. While lacking their harmonic sophistication, Bird certainly matches their speed, intensity, and passion. And on the new album, especially on ‘Unfolding Fans,’ a kind of alap (the opening section of a typical North Indian classical performance) to ‘Anonanimal,’ he sounds like he’s been taking notes from Indian violinists, and when he takes improvisatory flights, as he does intermittently on ‘Fitz & Dizzyspells’ and ‘Masterswarm,’ there’s more than a passing resemblance to L. Shankar.
In ‘Oh No,’ Bird, echoing the Beatles, his pied-piper predecessors, wants to take you down, to “get out of Here, past the atmosphere…past the silver bridge, wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil.” Bird’s whistling dances with moaning slide guitars, pickin’ and grinnin’ plucking, swirling oohs and ahs, and handclaps. With the endearing melody ringing in your ear, you can almost see Ron Howard with a branch over his shoulder walking down a road in Mayberry as the ‘Theme to the Andy Griffith Show’ plays.
Bird’s debt to Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke is easily identified by his melodramatic swoops, his, at times, effete vibrato, aspirated R’s, and other textural nuances, but also in his lyrical choices, often a blend of elliptical meanderings, disjunctive syntax, evocative imagery, etc. On ‘Masterswarm,’ however, his vocals are reminiscent of Caetano Veloso’s melancholic delivery. Listening to this song, I see white cow skulls slowly turning to powder under a desert sun, but it’s really more of a swamp, where midges and moths, radiolarians (protozoa with amoeba-like bodies and radiating filamentous pseudopods, by the way), and “flailing fetal fleas” do nasty things, but it’s also where syncopated handclaps, clicks and clacks, pizzicato arpeggios, and Bird’s languid tenor burrow into your ear hole.
‘Tenuousness’ is the strongest song on Noble Beast. I wonder, is it the languid pace that draws, or rather, sucks me in, drags me down, to its mournfulness? Is it the bouncing-off-cave-walls background vocals? Perhaps it’s those sizzling maracas. But maybe the answer lies in its unabashed logorrhea, on the verge of “misspelling disaster.” One can only stand in awe, or should I say audacity, before the mouthful of “Tenuous at best was all he had to say when pressed about the rest of it, the world that is from proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans, Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots, who hang around the ports a lot.” Has this guy been reading John Ashbery? Or Wallace Stevens at his most wonderfully inscrutable? ‘The Comedian As the Letter C,’ for instance. It’s that silver blur, that energetic opacity, but with a slippery tongue-twisting all his own.
But then again, as I become totally engulfed by Andrew Bird’s voice on ‘Nomenclature,’ the tenuous argument above is washed away. Yes, Thom Yorke, is a reference point, as is Roy Orbison, on this song. But when was the last time that our adventurous Thom allowed himself to sing like this. I guess I miss it as much as everyone else. And speaking of knob twiddling on the radiohead, Bird, on ‘Not a Robot, But a Ghost,’ sounds like he’s found that paranoid android do-it-yourself kit. Broken glass, static, cowbells, (or are those agogô bells?) cohere into a propulsive breakbeat. Fuzz-laden guitar stabs tear holes through the already frayed tapestry. And as the song tapers, Kid B keeps everything in its right place with his mantra, “The hour, the hour, the hour, the hour…” On ‘Anonanimal’ Bird flirts with playing in seven, a favorite time signature of those sonic mavericks (I’m sorry. Am I allowed to use that word yet?), and once that skittering snare fill comes in and the guitars start chugging along, you can only smile, hum, and say, Hail to the Thief.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. elimae has published his fiction. He reviews for Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, and New Pages, and blogs at hitherandthithering waters and My Pet Earworm.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 27th, 2009.