Sunday, 11 March 2012

Andrew Bird's New & Next Albums: Break It Yourself and Always Already

I have long been a fan of Mr Andrew Bird. He is one of my all-time favorites. He may be the performer I've seen the most times, including:
  • Old Town School of Folk Music (Chicago, 2004?), opening (!) for the Magnetic Fields
  • SXSW (Austin, 2007) where I saw him with a full band for the first time
  • Logan Square Auditorium (Chicago 2008) where I first saw Martin Dosh's solo set as an opener
  • Lyric Opera House (Chicago 2009), Emma and I had great seats to watch Andrew drop and break his violin partway through Fake Palindromes, and then have to stop and do a guitar-only rendition of his "ode to Dr. Strings, the man who fixes my violin when this happens" to close things off. Thankfully FP was already a second-or-third encore (I think) so the concert wasn't even really shortened by it
  • Barbican (London, 2012) which is the subject of the rest of this entry.
SXSW 2007
Before I get to the good stuff, though: A word about openers.


I like Martin Dosh. I appreciate his Minneapolis nature. I would like to sit down with him in the kind of bar that serves peanuts for free, and crack open the kind of beer that is served in cans, and have a chat. I do not, though, believe that his solo work has grown in the way that Bird's has over the last several years.

(Man, I must really be catching That Canadian Tendency Toward Niceness.)

See, when I first saw him in Chicago, I thought "this is interesting. It's a sort of Glenn-Kotche-lite." But Glenn is a freaking stringquartet of a kit player, and has obviously spent most of his life polishing his ability not to play drums per se, but to do all the things other instruments (and ensembles) do, just by himself and on kit. Dosh is more drone-noise-beatz... and a lot of the 'beatz' part of it was a lot more impressive in 2008 than it was last week.

And here's why, and this is also why you shouldn't have your friends open for you when you're famous: there's no pressure on him to get his own gigs, and therefore to develop his own sound. Dosh sounds like he's still playing parties in Minneapolis basements, because that's the last time he had to really win over an audience. (If I heard him in a basement I would not be this critical. I am being a critical jerk right now because he's opening for Andrew Bird, for chrissake, and I think Bird has grown into needing a higher quality of opening act, and I think he's done it in part through needing to make audiences go crazy in order to sell tickets. Rah-rah capitalism, whatever, but hunger is a great sparker of introspection, whether it's metaphorical or literal. (For the record, let's have government policies where it's just metaphorical, ok?))

I have felt this way before: seeing some guy opening for Regina Spektor— her set was another one of the best shows I've ever seen; it was at the peak of her first wave of popularity, before she got all I-have-a-rock-band, when she was just weird, not Weird™. This guitarist guy who appeared to be maybe-dating Regina... had backing tracks on an iPod. His songs would have made, maybe, an average set at Uncommon Ground or maybe a Tuesday at Schubas'. If I'm being generous. But at the Riviera? One of the biggest non-stadium venues in Chicago? No. No! Don't do this, headliners. 

I'm sure it's hard, when you know someone personally and are also Famous (not even Almost Famous). To hear their pitch to you ("Hey, I know! I should totally open for you on your next tour. It'd be awesome. Whaddya say?") and then have to make — not a business decision, because the shows are going to sell out, have already sold out— but an artistic decision. A decision about The Scene and which Aspiring/Upcoming Indie Artist you want to support, to offer this platform to play in front of zillions of people. This friend of yours? Or someone you don't know, but heard of through a friend of a friend, or saw at that party you almost didn't go to?

Because these friends never make it. And if you say "no" and they don't make it, you're now the thing that blocked their One Big Chance, and you'll probably not be their friend and it'll be lonely at the top and maybe you'll feel bad about it, lounging in your hot tub between sips of Crystal. (Does anyone actually drink that stuff?) So I get it. But, really, stars: Think Of The Scene.


The show was at that exciting place between reasonably-well-rehearsed and automatic, as Bird pointed out a couple of times. (One of the great things about seeing him live is that he invariably will start a song, it will sound just fine, and he'll cut it off and re-record the opening loop. More artists should do this. Have high standards! Even if no one can hear/see the difference. It tells us that you notice.) There were a few what-is-going-on moments, but nothing major, and all handled really well by the band. More importantly, the energy was well worth the tradeoff.

And his voice! I have never, never, never heard his voice in such great shape. At first I thought "wow, he's really been working on his voice" and then Emma pointed out that, of course, this was the beginning of a tour. So. All fresh and clean. The control! The high notes! The clarity! etc.

Last, since I'm not a real music writer and don't have to have any sort of proportionality to the amount of space I give to things, it's exciting to see that his songwriting is still evolving. He (like Radiohead in the early 2000's, and maybe still now, I don't really know King of Limbs yet because I Am Old Now so sometimes it takes me a while) has been doing this series of One Great Album After Another, from Armchair Apocrypha, really. (Mysterious Production of Eggs was good but uneven and not-hanging-together in the way the next albums do. At the time it was a breakthrough, but isn't that sort of the goal? For an artist, for anybody? To keep producing work that makes your old work look kind of half-hearted in comparison? &tMPoE is an album I would hang around my neck for the rest of my life if I'd written, but it is just not as much of a Work as AA, which is less so than Noble Beast, which (I am speculating here because I've only heard this newest one 3-4 times so far and so it's too early to say for sure) is slightly less of all of this than Break It Yourself.)

I could write a whole other post on Things We Noticed, like how the sampled-and-sped-up lick in Useless Creatures has become an actual lick that Bird (presumably) learned off his loopstation and now plays live. How the octave-pedal delay is slightly longer, which gives a bit more separation between the smallness of the violin and the bigness of its synthetic roots. How the spinning-horn-effect-sculpture can now be controlled by any member of the band, and is dual mic'd (I don't think it was before) but still stops wherever it wants, and a technician has to come out and adjust it to point toward the mic so that they can use its sound without the Leslie effect.

But for now, because part of what people enjoy about Bird's music is the wordiness, the lingualisms, the real and imaginary amalgamated, here is my clairvoyancy for the day, my prediction for:

Andrew Bird's Imaginary Next Album Song Titles
  1. Always already always already
  2. Die Agnostics
  3. Owl Cheering
  4. Tendentious, Triumphant
  5. Jimminy Jim and the Five-Star Hats
  6. Potentialities
  7. Steel to steal (Peddle to the medal)
  8. Conquering the Trees
  9. Box & Ring
  10. Y times Y
  11. Always always already already