Friday, February 20, 2009

ALBUM: Noble Beast

To say that I've been enjoying Andrew Bird's latest album, Noble Beast, would be something of an understatement. My poor wife has had to put up with my exclamations every time we have it on in the house - things like "how did he do that?" or "how did he even think of that?!" I think the most accurate way to describe my response to this record is "awe".

It doesn't hurt that I've been anticipating this album for over a year now, fueled by Mr. Bird's insightful and entertaining looks into his own writing and recording process via The New York Times Opinion column Measure for Measure (read all of Andrew Bird's posts here). This window into the singer/songwriter's mind has been a fascinating ride for me, especially after now hearing the finished product. Take for example this excerpt from his post last April:

"The record I want to make here and now — the one I wish I could find in my local record store — is a gentle, lulling, polyrhythmic, minimalist yet warm tapestry of acoustic instruments. No solos, just interlocking parts. A little Steve Reich, but groovier. A little Ghanaian street music, but more arranged. Thick and creamy vocals like the Zombies’s Colin Blunstone. The bass warm and tubby like Studio One dub."

After spending a few weeks with this record, I'd say he did it. In another post he describes making a record that you want to listen to over and over in your bedroom or car as a "carefully carved piece of sound", something different than the "adrenaline-fueled and spontaneous" live show experience (if you've seen him perform live you know how true that really is).

The reason I share these two excerpts is because I don't think I can improve on Mr. Bird's own descriptions for this album; specifically, a "carefully carved piece of sound" and a "warm tapestry". The album is soft, especially when compared to 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, but it's never mushy or meandering. Nothing is out of place. Every whistle, every tap of the strings, every bit of atmospherics, they're all in perfect order. Right from the opening whistles of 'Oh No' to the swaying final minutes of 'Souverian', there is no stitch in the tapestry that's missing or feels forced. Sprawling compositions like the 6 1/2 minute 'Master Swarm' lie next to some of the most concise and poppy songs that Bird's ever composed (i.e. 'Fitz and Dizzyspells'). Still awash with obscure lyricism and otherworldly melodic moments (you know, the ones that make me blurt out things like "how do you write that?!"), this album continues to push forward into new sonic terrain for Bird. Songs like 'Nomenclature', 'Not A Robot, But A Ghost', and 'Natural Disaster' are all perfect examples of the stylistic shifts and forays that he so seamlessly explores and ties together on this album. To be frank, this is a near perfect record.

In conclusion, I want to post another excerpt from Measure for Measure. I think that it sums up exactly my feelings on my first several listens to Noble Beast.

"I listened to my record recently and I'm concerned about how much I like it.

"This has never happened to me at this stage of making a record. Right about now is usually when I want to scrap the whole thing and start over.

"...But if I like my record too much does it mean I'm getting complacent? Or am I just gettting better at making records sound the way I want them to? It worries me because what I love about songwriting is that there is no guaranteed formula for success. I'm hoping that getting better at making records means, for one thing, that I am learning how to leave room for serendipitous moments. I always want to hear how things didn't go according to plan."

Noble Beast is indeed full of those serendipitous moments - and when it's taken in context of his other work, I think it's apparent that Andrew Bird is anything but complacent. Buy the record and see for yourself, and it you're in the Salt Lake area next Wednesday, don't miss him live at the Murray Theater.

UPDATE: So Blogger has, for the second time in a week, deemed the mp3s I posted as inappropriate, and completely erased my post. Lame. I know. Good thing I keep a back-up. But I won't be re-posting the mp3s - you can get your own at the The Hype Machine and

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