Album: Andrew Bird, "Break It Yourself" (Mom+Pop Records)
Part of the problem with Andrew Bird -- inasmuch as it is a problem; he'll likely continue to churn records regardless of how people feel about him -- has always been the sort of people who listen to Andrew Bird, and hit you over the head with Andrew Bird and make you feel terrible about yourself for not knowing more about Andrew Bird.
It's music that makes you feel slightly smarter than average, and comes with its own smug litmus test: can you describe the spinning horn speaker that Andrew Bird likes to play his violin through without calling it a "spinning horn thingy"? Can you grasp the complexity of Andrew Bird? If you only understood him then you'd be smart enough to not listen to that Coldplay guy.
Part of it is his own doing. He's practically Lemony Snicket with oboes and xylophones. Consider this review: "...the artist as violinist laid down a plucked or pizzicato pass, then used an octave pedal (to produce lower frequencies) for a cello or bass type part. Then he wove in a violin line for a theme, quickly pulled around an electric guitar that was strapped on his back, for a track that began as a fingerpicked arpeggio and progressed into an insistent rhythmic pulse." That's not rock and roll, that's 18th century Venetian marionette puppetry.
Yet he's so good at this weird alchemy, the purity of it shines through regardless of the complicated diagrams on the blackboard. It's convoluted, mannered pop, but it's still pop. On "Break it Yourself," though, Bird at first seems to be trying to put curious new listeners on off-balance footing as they walk into the twilight dusk of his world's foyer: "Desperation Breeds..." is dark, confusing and underwater. By the time Bird breaks the surface and emerges into the sunlight, you're not sure you're in the right room. Is this Andrew Bird, or have I stumbled into a very angry Fleet Foxes album?
By "Give It Away," the album's fourth track, he's back to the tick-tock normality of his baroque musical workshop. That he pulls together so many types of sounds and still manages to evoke cheerful yet creepy longing ("Would you hide in the hay with me? Where it's dark and you can scarcely breathe or see?") that you can whistle along with seems to be a credit, not a demerit, but it hardly sheds any new light on Snicket, er, Bird. "Eyeoneye" almost gets rockety, but then: whistling, which serves almost as a mise-en-scene in much of Bird's work, almost an aural fidget: it's not music if there's no whistling in it, so here is some whistling, so you will know that this is music. "Near Death Experience Experience" contains whistling, of course, but it's also a sly creeper of a song, preposterous because it's essentially a slow, roadhouse boogie imagined by art students in 1873 who have been asked to describe the theoretical sound of Delta blues musicians in the 1930s, but it somehow works despite its defiant air of academic distance.
"Lusitania" is an obvious choice for a single, with its lovely guest vocal from St. Vincent and sense of musical familiarity (all of Bird's typical surfaces are at least sanded down and rounded for comfort here), and what better choice for a shot at wider airplay than a song about the death of a thousand people on a sinking ship? Yet the song is pretty and deeply moving; one track later he is cross-breeding Balkan gypsy-pop with quick-plugged violin arpeggios and referencing Greek Argonauts, which leads to the uncomfortable realization that Bird probably considers himself one. Again though -- as with almost everything else on "Break It Yourself" -- the sheer craft of it is spectacular and it makes pleasant noises in the ears; the challenge posed by Andrew Bird is always going to be in describing this remarkable sensation to others without sounding like a complete ass.
Bird seems comfortable, however, walking the relatively thin line between pretension and pleasure -- "Hole in the Ocean" is eight minutes long and mostly consumed with watery violin noises -- and as his career progresses he's making less hay about needing to change his style for anyone else's liking, if he ever, in fact, cared. The closing track here, "Belles," spells out its screw-you-I'm-Andrew-Bird in foot-high letters you can see from space, in case you somehow missed all the whistling.
It consists of three minutes of bells. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just Andrew Bird.