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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Andrew Bird: The Swimming Hour


1) Two Way Action; 2) Core And Rind; 3) Why?; 4) 11:11; 5) Case In Point; 6) Too Long; 7) Way Out West; 8) Waiting To Talk; 9) Fatal Flower Garden; 10) Satisfied; 11) Headsoak; 12) How Indiscreet; 13) Dear Old Greenland.

The best Bowl of Fire album ever — or, perhaps, simply the most accessible? Well, if diversity and unpredictability count as sins, probably the latter. But, regardless, this review will be written from the point of view of an incorrigible sinner. Besides, it's not like we are talking teen pop or anything like that. This is a guy who could stand his own with Yo-Yo Ma.

The Swimming Hour takes us ever further away from the limitations of «neo-swing», as they like to call it, and into new old realms like power pop, psychedelia, blues rock, and rumba, among others. It has already been likened to The White Album and similar genre-hopping en­cy­clo­pae­dic al­bums, and for good reason, even though, occasionally, Andrew seems to plod through these gen­res rather than hop through them. Perhaps this explains the title — to swim, after all, takes more effort than to fly for those who can do both.

Some complain that Bird is hard to understand, and the points he makes are hard to get. Well, ob­viously, because he does not really make any points. He goes for moods and melodies, and he sets them to the kind of lyrics that are in no danger of spoiling said moods and melodies: rooted in the old pop-poetry clichés, either twisted to the point of intelligent-looking absurdity or adjusted to reflect a well-acted theatrical situation that does not cut through to the heart, but is still exciting, all the same. The lyrics are decent, but it's not like they really matter.

What does matter? Many things. Like when the crunchy violin riff emerges out of the sonic chaos of the first 40 seconds of 'Two Way Action', and we perceive it as a driving power pop anthem, well worthy of the Big Star legacy except that the strings are bowed rather than plucked. Or when the baroque flourishes on '11:11' bring together the twenty-first and the eighteenth centuries by way of the psychedelic Sixties. Or when the screeching guitar solo emerges out of nowhere on the quiet waltz of 'Fatal Flower Garden', giving it a nice rock flavor. Or when Bird starts whistling on 'Headsoak', giving us a first taste of his tremendous talents in that department. Or the wild rock'n'roll things he does with the violin on 'How Indiscreet', spiritually reminiscent of the British R'n'B rave-ups from around 1964.

In short, The Swimming Hour is simply a very melodic, and a very expertly constructed, piece of non-revolutionary modern art. Its intelligence is even reflected in the extremely correct manner in which Bird treats all the styles: thus, when it is power pop, a direction that nurtures originality in the juxtaposition of chords, he actually writes melodies of his own, but when it is the same old swing, we find the same old age-weathered progressions (as in, most notably, his cover of The Mi­ssissippi Sheiks' 'Too Long'), and this should bother us no more than it did on the man's previ­ous couple of records — you don't mess up with an already winning formula, you only polish it for the modern listener's hearing criteria.

One of the simplest and most effective examples is 'Why?', a thrilling chunk of «blues de luxe» that Bird arranges in the form of a non-trivial drama (he is a no-good fucker, she sees no problem in tolerating his no-goodness, he only gets more pissed-off as a result — not such a rare situation when you think of it, but, for some reason, generally neglected in the long tradition of refining personal rela­tions into high art). As the bluesy violin scrapes the soul with the efficacy of a trade­mark B. B. King solo, and the vocals effortlessly switch from exasperated falsetto to drunk, reckless wailing on the middle-eight, you know that the guy has created something — a character, a performance, a symbol, whatever, that you just might want to keep with you.

At this point in his career, Bird starts taking on the characteristics of an Adrian Belew for his ge­neration — that is, a properly schizoid guy, raised and reared as a tenant of the ivory tower but not above regularly holding a carnival for the local peasants right in front of the moat. No crucial importance for either the current times or the times to come, no clear reason for this kind of acti­vity, no possibility of understanding why we are all gathered here on this day, but the sensation of a significant positive charge is undeniable all the same. It's not post-modern smirk, and it isn't faithful generic tribute. It's groping in the dark with two loving hands, never mind any potentially salacious connotations.

I guess that's pretty much the same kind of feeling about which he sings in 'Dear Old Greenland'. There is no reason whatsoever for the protagonist to go to Greenland, but something out there makes him quite certain that this is just the right place to find the necessary peace of mind. Well, I could never quite get my own motiva­tion for being so strongly drawn to The Swimming Hour, but I can definitely confirm that this particular hour of swimming contributed to my own peace of mind. Let science deal with this some other day. The heart acknowledges the presence of a strong magnetic field here, and concedes a thumbs up.


  1. Thumbs up for sure. My favorite Andrew Bird production. He's gotten too...I don't know, heads-in-the-cloudsy, perhaps?...since.

  2. I've been listening to this (and Donovan's 'Sunshine Superman') on my way to work in these past few days.

    Just gotta say that 'Two Way Action' and 'Core And Rind' are ecstasies of the highest order.