Monday, January 23, 2012
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Thrills (1998)
It's strange to think about Andrew Bird, our Andrew Bird of the dignified indie-pop 2000s, existing during the swing revival -- an experience that was miserable for a lot of us in high school at the time. In retrospect I don't have a big problem with people yearning for the days of Benny Goodman and I've come to love at least one band on the outskirts of revivalist music, Asylum Street Spankers, but on the whole there was something horribly generic about that little episode in mainstream radio. The Bowl of Fire begins somewhat inauspiciously with a record that fits in somewhat with the retro mood of its period; their work would grow better with time, but the major problem here with Bird and his band is that they're all too tasteful. Whereas the major players of the swing resurrection and a few minor ones like Squirrel Nut Zippers (a band in which Bird was peripherally involved) dealt in flashiness and a kind of over-the-top, frenzied evocation of '20s big band, Bird sidesteps such matters in favor of a gentle and somewhat meticulous interest in documenting and experimenting with these sounds as if they're field recordings for him to play with. Thrills ends up being so dogged and single-minded in its maniacally backward-looking impulses that it's sort of formalist and dull. The throwback humdrum is rife with charm but total lack of necessity.
What's more, the best moments don't really point forward to what would end up making Bird special as a composer or the Bowl of Fire triumphant as a group -- you come back to the sinister Germanic pastiche of "Pathetique" with its deliciously playful vocal, or the Ukranian folk concoction "50 Pieces" that sounds like something Mel Brooks would've written for The Twelve Chairs. The songs generally come across as parodies of standards, which I assume wasn't really the intent, and not particularly clever or playful ones -- it's quite straight-ahead, music that would've drifted to the middle or the bottom in the fruitful periods it's trying to conjure up. Bird would get far, far better, and Bowl of Fire would improve immensely almost right away. Do pick up Thrills, though, for the absolutely lovely version of Charley Patton's "Some of These Days," a whimsical and ghostly recording that stands well apart from the gimmicry largely in play here. Maybe this should have been a covers album.