ANDREW BIRD'S BOWL OF FIRE: OH! THE GRANDEUR (1999)
1) Candy Shop; 2) Tea And Thorazine; 3) Wishing For Contentment; 4) Wait; 5) The Idiot's Genius; 6) Vidalia; 7) Beware; 8) Dora Goes To Town; 9) Feetlips; 10) And So...; 11) Coney Island Shuffle; 12) Respiration; 13) (What's Your) Angle; 14) The Confession; 15) Beware (reprise).
All right; this sounds almost exactly like Thrills, but it no longer sounds like homework. There was a little bit of Andrew Bird already present on Music Of Hair, but it is his third LP where the Andrew Bird part becomes seriously comparable in size to the «Andrew Bird influences» part. Most of this has to do with the lyrics, ever more entangled, personal, and mixing hip modern ways of thinking about life with traditional ways of expressing these thoughts. At least, such is my tentative explanation of why Oh! The Grandeur is the first FUN Andrew Bird album. Or, as Andrew admits himself, "I've got a new-found fangled fandango tango angle — and it keeps things curious, and it makes folks furious; it takes two part tango and a little tingle tangle, and two orangutans like me and you" ('What's Your Angle').
Bird's biggest achievement here, perhaps, is that he has managed to make that old time music feel relevant once again, and maybe even disclose some potential depth that we rarely, or never, perceive when listening to Kurt Weill or Fats Waller, not because they were not «deep», but because, in creating all these new sounds, they never bothered to explore them right down to the core. By adding new levels of technical precision, combining rarely combined instruments, juxtaposing rarely juxtaposed sub-styles, and filling them up with present-day realities, the guy gives the old carnival thing a second breath — and does this with more subtlety and personality than the Squirrel Nut Zippers themselves, who also tried to revive the form but did not truly succeed in filling it up with the proper spirit.
On 'Candy Shop', which opens the record on a fast, brawny, danceable note, Bird promises that he is "goin' to set fire to your glamour", but the song is a cunning deception: it merely sounds like a fast outtake from Thrills, another bit of well-polished tribute but with little chance of being selected for preservation in the National Archives. But then 'Tea And Thorazine' takes off at a much slower, in some ways, even creepier pace as Bird sings memoirs of his autistic brother, and from then on, it is a strange journey into the world of gypsy fiddles and jump-blues guitars and voodoo percussion that, at times, evokes images of an early morning dreamy hangover after a long night at the local speakeasy.
The record's centerpiece is, I believe, to be faithfully found right in the center: 'Beware', moving from its regular violin intro to the lazy shuffle mood and then, without warning, into the sphere of drunken ominousness: with huge vocal, violin, and piano crescendos, Bird gives us a warning against... uh, I actually have no idea what he is talking about, but I do like the idea of using that old-fashioned cabaret sound to sing about some sort of impending apocalypse. In fact, all through the record there is a vague sense of danger at the end of town, but what kind of danger — that is not so interesting for Andrew to specify.
Of course, I may be reading too much into an album that, even with all the darker themes, keeps debasing itself with cheerful lightweight SquirrelNuttish throwaways like 'Dora Goes To Town', but bear with me: Andrew Bird is too smart a guy to be restricted by the tag of «lightweight entertainer», and there is no other way to let him escape this restriction than to keep talking about his non-trivial artistic conceptions. And, above all, you cannot accuse him of insincerity or inadequacy: if his goal truly is to «keep things curious» and «make folks furious», these are two things that Oh! The Grandeur does splendidly. At the very least, it made my brain cells furious enough and my heart strings curious enough to guarantee this the first truly solid thumbs up in Andrew Bird history.