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Album Review: Andrew Bird

December 18, 2009

Thrills – 1998

If you haven’t yet ventured in Andrew Bird’s pre-solo career, let me introduce you to ThrillsThrills is Bird’s second album (his first proper album released by a label) and was cut with his first backing band, the Bowl of Fire.  Thrills is a surprising adventure into Bird’s musical influences, but despite that, it’s also a complete departure in every way from the indie violin mania genre that Bird has mastered and now can call his very own.

Thrills plays out like a mixtape that includes songs from the 1920s to the 1950s, an eclectic mix of nearly every retro style imaginable.  In some ways, being familiar with Bird’s current work is an asset for listening to Thrills for a couple of reasons.  First, you will hear flourishes of what makes his music so interesting now, plus, his growth as both a musician and a singer over the past decade is obvious and this album makes you appreciate just how hard he must work to hone his talents.

The album begins with “Minor Stab,” an ultra-dramatic theatrical song that along with “50 Pieces” and “Ides of Swing” conjure up old-school New Orleans jazz fused with gypsy music that you’d be hard-pressed to identify as Andrew Bird tracks, at least while he’s channeling his best Boris Karloff vocals.  Those three songs in particular are not at all like anything you might expect to hear from Bird, but once you listen, you hear the root of Bird’s unique ability to infuse dramatic touches into his indie songs to make them truly special.  Likewise, “Pathetique” rings opens with some familiar Bird violin finger-picking while his vocals alternate between low bellows and his typical mellifluous tone, the music masterfully stalking and gliding along provocatively.

In addition to the gypsy sensibilities found on the album, there is a great deal of country swing meshed with the jazz.  “Glass Figurine” is a bouncy retro western swing song, not unlike a track you might find a band playing some night at the Broken Spoke.  “A Women’s Life and Love” is sung by the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Katherine Whalen, whose smoky and clear tones recall Billie Holiday with a slight country twist and blend beautifully alongside Bird’s violin skills.  “Gris-Gris” chugs along lazily as Bird sings, “Let’s drink some mash and talk some trash ’til morning” and “Cock O’ The Walk” is like what happens after the mash kicks in.  It’s a lot of fun, but perhaps a little too derivative in style and refrain, although that won’t stop you from having a great time while listening.  The most “country” track is “Nuthinduan Waltz”; without the violin, it’s almost like Hank Williams and it’s just lovely while the closer, “Some of These Days” starts off in the same vein as “Nuthinduan,” and is similarly filled with bittersweet regret.

Thrills is just on the border as far as album cohesiveness is concerned, but that hardly matters because Bird’s real accomplishment here is how authentic the music sounds.  It’s pretty clear that he has a major affinity for these foundational musical styles, demonstrated by the fearless gusto he pours into this sophomore album, and he even mimics the rugged production values as closely as possible.  Of all the songs on Thrills, the music and songwriting from “Eugene” are undoubtedly the most reminiscent of Bird’s newer styles; it’s only his melodramatic vocalizations and the gritty production value that signal it’s place on this album.  Other than “Eugene,” the entire album is not unlike something you might hear soundtracking a particularly climactic black-and-white period drama.  Bird might want to consider pulling some of these songs out at a show; watching them played by a devoted student of the style would absolutely delight anybody with an appreciation for root music and Thrill his extremely hardcore fans.

Get it?  Yeah, okay.  If you’re looking for a review of Andrew Bird’s more recent work, try my blog about 2003’s Weather Systems and then get Thrills as soon as possible.

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