Andrew Bird, like the double-barreled phonographs that have accompanied him throughout this year’s Break It Yourself / Hands of Glory tour, is a modern embodiment of the best kind of history; the kind of history that can whisk its audience away with whimsical details and haunting resonance. Bird takes his cues from talents past, ignoring the glitz of the 21st century recording studio and instead applying his technical craft for a specific purpose. Bird’s music, whether in his own work or his interpretation of others’, is always an ode of sorts. His work acts as a tribute to language, his instruments, his voice and, of course, his whistle. Hands of Glory, however, Bird’s “companion” release to his full-length record, Break It Yourself (which came out in early 2012), is a bit more overt. Amid a flurry of covers, Bird sneaks in a few nods to his own work and, of course, the music that made him the artist he is today.
While the links that connect Hands of Glory to Break It Yourself may be a bit shaky, the record itself is as fun as it is lovely. A steady beat, a plucked violin and Bird’s voice, full of pure power and artful restraint, introduce the first track, “Three White Horses.” From the gradual build-up and the layered instrumentals to the chorus-line breakdown after the halfway mark, the opening song seems to suggest that the eight-track record will be a little sibling of sorts to Bird’s Break It Yourself. But then, like a dark cloud rolling over Bird’s uplifting landscape, “When That Helicopter Comes” begins to play. Bird’s melodic take on The Handsome Family’s sinister song sets a new tone for the collection of tracks, introducing images of an apocalyptic resurrection of the dead. These images of death and nature, which reappear throughout the album, tie the songs together, but not in an entirely convincing way. Between Bird’s powerful vocals and his ethereal instrumentals, it’s difficult to believe the doom his sings about.
Andrew Bird’s “Three White Horses”
Despite this disconnect in imagery and sound, the motifs remain present in the third, and perhaps most “Bird-ified” cover on the record, “Spirograph.” Bird breathes life into the song, expanding its lungs by injecting his signature linguistic acrobatics. The subtle change, which occurs in the opening and closing lyrics from Alpha Consumer’s original, transforms the song from a cover to an artistic interpretation. The original lyric, “echoes down waterwells / picked up in sacred spirographs / weekend in winters unbendable, baby” in this version becomes, “echos down waterwells / picked up in sacred spirographs / weekend in winters un-endable, bendable, baby.” This tiny addition, while subtle in print, epitomizes the character that Bird gives to his work. Like any good artist or author, Bird has developed an identity that refuses to be suppressed.
As Hands of Glory progresses, Bird continues to suture the songs that he’s covering. His iteration of folk-staple “Railroad Bill” is almost rollicking by relative Bird standards, and his voice is almost too pure for the track, beaming when it should be breaking and twinging when it should be twanging. In spite of the shortcomings that color his impersonation of the banjo-plucking folk singers from the days of hillbillies and overalls, Bird’s enthusiasm is palpable. It is clear that Bird and his band members are having fun with the track, which ends with a flourish of Bird’s violin, a whooping call from the background of the recording space, an audible high five (or thigh-slap, perhaps?) and, perhaps most genuine sound in the mix, a clear split of laughter.
Andrew Bird’s “Railroad Bill”
“Something Biblical,” which fuses the motifs from previous tracks with the Bird-basics (layered plucking, percussion, violin and harmonies), is an underwhelming follow-up to the infectious “Railroad Bill.” The track is quickly lost in the shuffle as Bird’s cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I needed You” lifts the album back up on its feet. Bird’s reverence for the original artist and the original track is audible as he molds his voice and slows his pace to adhere to the lull that defines true country music. “Orpheo,” an ode to a track on Bird’s Break It Yourself, called “Orpheo Looks Back,” recalibrates the record, transitioning it from Bird’s fan-boy moment back to the crux of his musical identity: his voice and his violin.
The final track on the album, “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” brings the album full-circle. Bird uses the nine-minute track to address the themes referenced by each of the preceding songs through the lens of his distinct artistic perspective. As the violins wail, Bird allows his own art to take the forefront again; he gives the stage his instruments and the listener can feel him embracing the sound.
At the five-minute mark, he allows his double-barreled phonographs to spin, looping and reverberating, as if to propel his music to the beings above. And then, as he draws his strings over his violin, the record reaches its peak. The phonographs slow down, as does his instrument, before they song returns to the very point at which it started. It is clear that Bird reconnects to himself at this moment in the record. He assesses what he has learned from the songs that he borrowed and the songs that he lent, and he offers this final gift to his loyal listener; this final ode. And, if we could see him, we know that he would be closing his eyes.
Written by Molly Schreiber
OurVinyl | Contributor