ANDREW BIRD: WEATHER SYSTEMS (2003)
1) First Song; 2) I; 3) Lull; 4) Action/Adventure; 5) →; 6) Skin; 7) Weather Systems; 8) Don't Be Scared; 9) ←.
This one is perhaps easier to understand, forgive, and take a liking to if one accepts Bird's explanation of it as a «side project» tossed off during the several years it took him to perfect his first «proper» solo album (The Mysterious Production Of Eggs). A short, monotonous, lazy, near-ambient slice of chamber-dream-pop, Weather Systems has nevertheless been hailed as a hidden masterpiece by quite a few critics — charmed either by witnessing the final stages of Bird's evolution from swinging folkster into raffinated baroque artist or by the channelling of the spirit of the late Jeff Buckley, always a good boost for those critics who get paid by the word.
In spirit and in technique, Weather Systems does not add much to the first half of Fingerlings, one of whose songs it even reproduces in a studio arrangement ('Action/Adventure'). Again, the basic message here is that of «intelligent melancholia» — Andrew Bird as the lonesome minstrel, watching the vanity of the world from his favorite cliff high up in the clouds and polishing his lyre (violin). It's all there on 'I', running along a simple plucked rhythm and a morose distorted bassline and a mantraic refrain that sets the tone for the whole record: "...hear a voice that says we're basically alone, says we're basically alone...". (The track would later become the rockier-arranged 'Imitosis' and one of Bird's primary visit cards, but I must say that it is much more effective in its stripped down state. Alone is alone, after all).
After a while, it gets louder and denser, acquiring a decidedly psychedelic flavour by the time of the last two or three tracks. 'Don't Be Scared', a cover of a little-known tune by a little-known alt-country outfit (The Handsome Family), has plenty of cloudy gorgeousness — in a way, you could think of it as the blueprint for most of the creations of Beach House. And the title track, although quite unmemorable by itself, does that on purpose, merging the ambient values of late XXth century with a good mixture of XVIIIth century chamber music.
It is funny, come to think of it, that I have used the word «baroque», probably tricked, in an impressionistic way, by too much violin — because the skeleton of the record still reflects Bird's fascination with folk, bluegrass, and various ethnic styles. For all I know, the beginning of 'First Song' could just as well be James Taylor. But, through the art of cloning that violin and hybridizing the clones in different ways, Bird comes a bit close to providing us with the answer to the rarely asked, but all the more intriguing question: «What would we get if we had the likes of Tartini or Paganini interested in learning and assimilating the British/American folk idiom?» Obviously, a direct comparison would be ridiculous, since Bird is no virtuoso (each time he gets hailed as one by any of his professional admirers, it makes me wonder if they actually took the time to get acquainted with his classical influences), yet the basic idea is comprehensible, and nowhere is it expressed as fluidly as on that hard-to-nail title track.
I suppose that, once Bird's career has finally been laid to rest, this will be viewed as his equivalent of the Beach Boys' Friends: an emphatically hushed, introspective lull (hey, one of the tracks is named 'Lull!') in between bigger, louder, more «public» statements; and today already Weather Systems is a serious candidate for the best A. B. album in the eyes of emphatically hushed, introspective listeners. Thumbs up — there is no significant criticism I can hurl at any of these songs. How could I, when I slept through most of them?