Andrew Bird

Posted by on Dec 30, 2008 in Music | 7 comments

Here’s a riddle: What has a guitar, violin, mandolin, glockenspiel, professionally whistles and embodies the heart of Chicago? So far there is only one answer to that question: Andrew Bird.

As a writer for a website that revolves around issues, music and culture that is Chicago, Andrew Bird is an artist who I cannot pass over. He was raised in Illinois, graduated from our own Northwestern University, and has risen above countless flocks of musicians. 

It’s impossible to pigeonhole his sound with just a few words. Over the many albums he has produced, there has been a distinct evolution from the initially more classic and jazz in his first album to the more guitar driven-indie rock in his latest. Throw in a whole lot of violin and some glockenspiel for a bit of folk, and then some professional whistling, and you’ve found yourself in an exceptional listening space. Go to one of his shows, and you’ll get a musical experience of a life-time.

Classically trained, Bird has been playing violin since he was four years old. He graduated with a degree in Performance Violin, and the same year self-released his first album Music of Hair. On January 20th, Bird will introduce his 13th studio release since his first album in 1997.

When I first sat down to write this, I tried to describe the evolution of his music through the many albums, but even with a quick run down and skipping a few here and there, it became an impossible feat to give it justice and not go on for a few pages. In over thirteen albums he has produced three with his band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, several solo albums and three live albums, all with a slightly different taste to it.

One of the most interesting and pervasive qualities of the albums is the way Andrew pairs his lyrics with music. The deeper, more doleful lyrics are sung with luminous, poppy music and vice versa. In an appearance on NPR- Andrew Bird: Defying Categorization– Bird says “light on light” and “dark on dark, is kind of boring… there’s always a contrast between my lyrics and the music…that’s what makes music interesting to me.”

Despite how lightly he talks about song lyrics, it’s hard not to believe that most of the songs have an almost philosophical air about them. It’s one of the things I like most about his music- he goes beyond the usual relationship, love, and “bling bling” gibberish that the radio beats us over the head with. The lyrics are clever, and even in the slowest songs have a bounce to them. A great example of this is the song Heretics, who’s title and lyrics easily provoke discussion as to whether the song is about death, religion, or if it is a comment on the war on Iraq, is a very playful peace musically.

One of my favorite songs is Masterfade. Like his theme of light on dark, the song is slower with upbeat lyrics. The song talks about the sky being “full of zeros and ones” and “the grass is 6, the soybeans are 11” as if the world is made of complex computer code, yet at the same time suggest simplicity through the lyrics “you took me down to watch the kewpie doll parade/we let the kittens lick our hair and drank our chalky lemonade.” It is a slower piece, one you can easily close your eyes to and let it swallow you in the plucks of violin, lull of his voice, and smooth bird-like whistling between chorus and verses.

The instruments and the lyrics are enjoyable to listen to and interesting to pull apart, but where you are truly awed is when he performs live. At first a gawky, skinny guy in front of you, he transforms as the music begins to flow through his finger tips and lips and you become hypnotized. Bird has the capabilities of being a one-man band. Equipped with an orchestral amount of instruments and a sampler, he loops several sections with each instrument. Every evening, he recreates his music in front of you. Andrew’s songs are like snowflakes, they are similar to the recorded albums, but he never reproduces them exactly the same. He has fun, changing up and jamming with his violin and guitar, smiling and nodding his head as he goes. The only word that comes to your mind is “wow”. At the end of April, he will be appearing at the Civic Opera House, and I highly recommend going to the show.

His newest album, Noble Beast, officially comes out January 20th, and a limited edition is now on pre-sale until they run out. The CD comes with a bonus disc called Useless Creatures which is a collection of instrumental works. On January 5th you’ll be able to stream Noble Beast at NPR Music, but until then check out his myspace or official website:

Happy listening!