ANDREW BIRD: FINGERLINGS (2002)
1) Action/Adventure; 2) Trimmed And Burning; 3) Gotholympians; 4) Richmond Woman; 5) Sweetbreads; 6) Why; 7) Headsoak; 8) How Indiscreet; 9) T'N'T.
Pretty much impossible to find these days — the original was limited to something like 250 copies — but, nevertheless, totally essential. Much of Bird's studio recording has a live feel to it all by itself, but to «get» this guy, it is necessary to experience him on stage, at least converted to audio (or video). It is there, as he is standing half-plucking, half-bowing his violin, that it is the easiest to convince yourself he really does have the required «mystery component» and cannot be simply written off as just another readily trashable post-modern clown.
Fingerlings have been assembled from various performances, but structured in a very coherent manner, reminiscent of the original sequencing of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense: the protagonist is alone at first, then slowly joined, one by one, by the trusty backup. And this gives an extra reason for comparing Bird with Byrne (beyond the obvious graphic and phonetic similarities in their names, that is) — both artists have been guilty of cultivating a unique mix of craziness and intelligence so as to make an impression, and both make it hard for the average listener to discern the average human soul beyond the formalistic trappings; hard, but possible, and richly rewarding in the long run.
Bird's solo sound is quite unique. The simultaneous plucking and bowing gives him a great angle — the plucked violin acquires a mandolin-like sound, and this takes care of both rhythm and melody. But his real trademark is the use of a special gadget, based on the loop pedal principle, that actually records parts of what he is playing and then plays it back while he is going on to the next part, having just created a temporary «phonogram» for the next several bars. Cynics will deride this as a crude financial solution (no need to pay the rhythm player), but admirers will point out the tremendous technical difficulty it takes to measure out something like that in live performance — we know of plenty users of the loop pedal, but this is a very demanding extreme.
It could also be qualified as a silly show-off, but with Bird, it works; it might, in fact, be just what is needed, as, over and over again, he wraps himself in his own freshly-generated sounds like a protective cocoon. The first three songs on Fingerlings are strictly solo, solemn and sorrowful, and the traditional 'Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning' perfectly fits in with two of his own compositions. But it is not any kind of sorrowfulness you are easily familiar with; it is a very quiet, introspective kind, a chamber piece for the initiated few, perhaps bringing to mind the old melancholy of Nick Drake, except Bird's blood quietly boils where Nick's used to quietly freeze, if you'll pardon the clumsy metaphor.
Things slowly start picking up and shedding some of the moroseness once Bird is joined by Nora O'Connor on guitar and backing vocals for the next three numbers, including a completely reinterpreted 'Why' from The Swimming Hour. These bring on a more traditional folksy attitude (although, lyrics-wise, the extremely bizarre 'Sweetbreads' is anything but traditional); and then, finally, the entire Bowl Of Fire comes forward, first in a stately and graceful manner on a stripped-down version of 'Headsoak', then totally letting their hair down and having a rowdy ball on the last two numbers.
And then, as you cast a retro-eye on what you have just heard, it turns out you have been taken on one man's journey through three (if not more) different stages. There's the being alone part, there's the being together part, and then there's the big company part. Three modes of existence, three ways of conduct, three emotional stages — solitary sadness, thoughtful dialog, and reckless partying, each one equally engaging and convincing. Throw in the idiosyncratic playing technique, the note-perfect singing, and the general strength of the selections, and the 250 copies will look like a fuckin' joke. A billion thumbs up if that is what it takes to bring this back in print.