Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Andrew Bird: Hands of Glory (2012)

(Mom + Pop)


This collection of loose, almost haphazardly recorded throwaways is accidentally-on-purpose the strongest and most immediate music the ever-reliable Bird has released in many years, and that's coming from someone who loved Noble Beast. This is also, somewhat remarkably, his second full-length album of 2012 after Break It Yourself; that album was a weighty, ambitious and cerebral affair, especially in comparison to this spontaneous series of eight covers, self-covers, riffs on rustic tradition, and weird country-music jokes. Bird is a fine composer and musician in a classic sense, but to hear him cutting loose and having fun to this extent is a revelation on par with his giddy Bowl of Fire days.

Hands retains the full-band sonics of Break It Yourself but strips the acoustics down until the record gains the genuine acoustic minimalism of an old 78; opener "Three White Horses" is one of his best-ever tunes and could've sprung forth from the actual past or the past as painstakingly duplicated by Daptone or by the Asylum Street Spankers -- only with less effort, thus greater significance. Bird gives no regard to cohesion in moving on to the wild spiritual "When That Helicopter Comes" or the relentless fiddle goofoff "Railroad Bill." The second half sustains a mood more carefully, but only slightly, with Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" treated to an emotional reading by Bird so sincere it's rather shocking in the context of his career, and the extended "Beyond the Valley of the White Horses" ambling prettily into the runoff groove with greater ease and charm than the analogous "Holes in the Ocean Floor" on the previous record, which was at least a minute shorter and felt longer.

Stripped of his indie leanings and the baroque fixation that began to take hold circa Weather Systems, Bird proves himself little more or less than an enthusiastic talent whose penchant for chameleon-like playing, singing, and writing is just an element of who he is. His relaxation and freedom to experiment betray a robust confidence that make Hands of Glory something much more than any given artist's collection of live-in-the-studio jams. It's a delight, a must for anyone who's ever been impressed by him, and I'll take this unlabored joy over the poky meanderings of certain other solo genre-busters any day.

Noble Beast (2009)
Break It Yourself (2012)
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire: Thrills (1998)

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