ANDREW BIRD: THINGS ARE REALLY GREAT HERE, SORT OF (2014)
1) Cathedral In The Dell; 2) Tin Foiled; 3) Giant Of Illinois; 4) So Much Wine, Merry Christmas; 5) My Sister's Tiny Hands; 6) The Sad Milkman; 7) Don't Be Scared; 8) Frogs Singing; 9) Drunk By Noon; 10) Far From Any Road.
This is yet another «minor» release, perhaps not worth a lengthy review, but well worth a few verbal niceties. Either suffering from writer's block (and I certainly do not blame him for that at this point in his career), or simply in search for something slightly different, our friend Andrew here releases a short CD with ten covers of songs by The Handsome Family — an alt-country duo from Chicago/Albuquerque, consisting of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks. I've listened to a few of these songs in their original versions, and they sound more or less like an alt-country record is supposed to sound: firmly rooted in the genre's basics, but bravely struggling to avoid the genre's clichés and overall shallowness — lyrically intelligent, musically competent, listenable, but not particularly inspiring.
The Andrew Bird touch, though, does these songs some major good. Sparse, minimalistic arrangements (although he does employ all of his band from the previous album) and especially Bird's familiar tenor give them extra romantic vulnerability and extra emotional depth; he also makes significant melodic changes to suit his own style — for instance, the original ʽFar From Any Roadʼ had a bit of a spaghetti-western aura to it, with an epic brass section and all, whereas Bird's guitar-and-eerie-violin-only arrangement actually does a better job of conveying a wanderer's desert experience with a lonely cactus.
One thing about the Sparks duo (no, not those Sparks — Brett and Rennie, I mean) is that they write almost surprisingly decent lyrics, which frequently attract more attention than the music and may actually explain Bird's interest in them. Not every country outfit, not even every alt-country outfit, would write a song about the Köln Cathedral, for instance, and then go from there to a "fiberglass castle in Wisconsin" (ʽCathedral In The Dellʼ) — but somehow Andrew Bird seems just like the guy that you'd associate with singing a song that takes the Cathedral as its central metaphor, maybe because everything about Bird is so «high», like the Cathedral itself — the singing, the whistling, the violin playing, always stuck somewhere high up in the clouds.
Then there's the mystical/religious metaphors, like the one with the cactus in the desert, where it is hard to understand if the metaphor is spiritual or amorous or both, but the desert imagery is used cleverly all the same, and Bird's haunting arrangement does phenomenally well agree with New Mexican desert at sunset (something I have had the pleasure of experiencing personally a few times, so I know what I'm talking about here), making ʽFar From Any Roadʼ the definitive highlight of this brief experience.
That said, do not expect any great songwriting or innovative arrangements on the whole: the basic structures of the songs are fairly traditional, the style is fairly well unified, and there are no attempts to dazzle the listener (in fact, Bird's violin is kept strictly in check throughout, and the acoustic guitar parts are not particularly interesting by themselves). I would say that the most intriguing aspect of the album is simply that we get to witness the process of taking a non-Bird song and effortlessly transforming it into a Bird song — so it is instructive to listen to this stuff back to back with the originals, see how this man's brain works «when given the data». Without the originals, this is simply another small bunch of very typical and predictable Andrew Bird, albeit with some new, different lyrical angles. Short and sweet, I give it a usual thumbs up, but only because it is adequately low on ambition — and offers us no clue as to whether this guy still has it in him to properly amaze us, rather than give us what we already well know, sometime in the near (or faraway) future.