The master has returned home. Andrew Bird, expert violinist and whistler-extraordinaire, released his latest LP Are You Serious into the music cosmos last week, his first full-length album since he took a break three years prior to focus on his family and thematic side projects. A simultaneous celebration of his newly-formed family and a refocusing of the spotlight from the sidelines, many tracks seek to explore the newfound longevity of relationships. Bird takes time to analyze the sacrifices and compromises that have to be made as two people get to know each other through the lens of love and commitment. The album serves both as an inward analysis of his personal life and as a clear-eyed celebration of musical creation in a way only Andrew Bird can accomplish.
Are You Serious exudes a quiet confidence; while there is no artistic boasting to be found in the tracks, Bird takes the opportunity to expand his instrumental repertoire with the addition of purring electric guitars, some handy drum work, and playful bass lines. All this done with band-members, of course: something Bird utilizes only ever-so-often, being quite well-acquainted with the loop pedal. The album retains Bird’s signature whimsy and desire for creative and ruminative exploration, but a new trait emerges: self-assuredness. Bird has temporarily shed the introspection and neurotic shoe-gazing and has exchanged it with a kind of bright-eyed clarity, and it shines throughout the entire album.
The album opens with “Capsized,” a funky, brash opener that reverberates through the speakers. Signifying a definitive deviance from previous works, the track is less an abandonment of his usual modus operandi and more an incorporation of new themes, layered on top of the classic violin-centric base. The result yields a jazzy mix of Bird’s signature violin twangs and reverbs, accompanied by a plucky drum line and a stealthy but lively bass line; all this amid swirling electric guitars. “Roma Fade” skips in next, starting out with the signature plucked violin strings and jaunty whistling that Bird is so well-known for. It then jumps right into a lively guitar and drum combo that moves the song right along, while Bird’s vocals swoop in and out, keeping time. Frequent decrescendos keep the pace interesting; Bird’s voice takes a faded reverb effect, adding depth and darkness to the otherwise positively jaunty song. “Truth Lies Low” features Bird’s unique violin skills: he is prone to pluck the violin strings as one would a guitar, and this track is no exception. Through looping tracks, Bird creates a layering effect that highlights delicate electric guitar, creative drum work, and some electronic elements reminiscent of Postal Service.
“Left-Handed Kisses” delivers a fiery duet with Fiona Apple, portraying a theatrical argument between a skeptical lover and a tired romantic. Lyrics flow out into the space between them in a hybrid poetic form, as if written correspondences were being read out loud. The instrumentals are drawn back, almost at times seeming unfinished; while a deterrent at first, upon more listens the spartan, erratic musical background actually elevates the lyrics and the tête-a-tête between the duo. “Valleys of the Young” is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the best track on the album; it shows a grittier side of Bird, more alt-rock than alt-folk, but the dark, penetrating lyrics prevent the track from becoming a half-assed version of itself. Though not quite as musically innovative, it is very reminiscent of the sprawling “Armchairs” from Bird’s 2007 Armchair Apocrypha.
“Bellevue” signals the end of the (note: non-deluxe version) album, a quiet and contemplative track that ties together the album quite well. It is an ending that does not try to overreach or impress; it sits quietly with the listener, crescendoing in slow waves that eventually ends in a simple violin riff accompanied by a harmonizing guitar. The overarching themes of adventures-in-love and turning a new leaf are cinched together by Bird singing the last lyric of the track a cappella: “I think I’ve found someone.”
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Hours before his performance at the Corona Theatre in Montreal, Andrew Bird was running around downtown in the pouring rain, attempting to get his violin bow restrung. The audience learned of this at the concert as, for the third time, he stopped after another false start to retune his violin, simultaneously apologizing and explaining the mechanism behind a stiff bow. While currently touring North America to showcase his latest release, Are You Serious, Bird and his backup posse stopped by to play a mix of tracks new and old for almost two hours to a packed and adoring crowd. The concert began a little shakily, with Bird having to retune his bow for the first time before launching into “Capsized,” the first track off of the new album. However, he ended to raucous cheers and whistles, a surprising reaction for an alt-folk artist; but then again, when you recognize a force of talent such as Andrew Bird, it is quite hard not to fall completely in love. Next was an old song, “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” from The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2001). Bird’s signature whistle-loop was prominently displayed here, as was his own personal tic: when plucking his violin, he tends to shake his head in a figure-eight loop along time with the rhythm.
Bird’s perfectionism begets a strong desire for tinkering; throughout all his live performances, he has a habit of improvisation. Later in the evening he performed “Plasticities” (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007), which has a long introduction that he approaches as a kind of open-source code. Every live performance of the song is slightly different, a unique fingerprint of the original recording. For this Montreal performance, Bird tweaked not the beginning but the middle of the song, taking time to form recorded loops and harmonize over them with his violin and guitar. The shifting melodies washed over the crowd, who were respectfully quiet and awestruck; the only source of movement here was a gentle collective swaying.
However, not all songs lent this sense of rumination and experimentation. Are You Serious is Bird’s foray into incorporating alt-rock themes to his otherwise country-folk-centric music, and at many times the concert reflected this atmosphere. The crowd bounced in time and stomped their feet to tracks like “Puma” and “Roma Fade;” some of the more inebriated concert-goers even attempted to start a small mosh, which was largely ignored by the everyone else there. Bird performed the duet “Left-Handed Kisses” solo, a tongue-in-cheek performance portraying an argument between lovers; Fiona Apple, featured on the recorded track, was a no-show. “Valleys of the Young,” a grittier power ballad, was delivered in an emotional performance by Bird, and featured Steve Elliot on electric guitar (Blake Mills plays the guitar on the recorded album). Bird then delved into his country-themed tracks, playing “Three White Horses” with soaring harmonies and creative looping.
Bird ended the concert with “Pulaski” (I Want To See Pulaski At Night,” 2013) and “Armchairs” (Armchair Apocrypha, 2007), two critical and crowd favorites. The former served as an homage to his hometown of Chicago, and allowed for more inspired improvisation; the latter was an eight-minute epic played beautifully with ragged emotion, and left the crowd screaming for more. Bird and his band returned for an acoustic encore after only a few minutes, choosing mostly Handsome Family covers as an intimate closing. He played “The New Saint Jude” to close the show. After finishing the gently rollicking track that left the audience happy and optimistic, Bird walked off the stage to a cacophany of cheers, clapping, and stomping; a mix of harmonies and rhythms fit only to salute such a musical maestro.
-Album released: April 1, 2016
-Performance: Théâtre Corona, Montreal QC
–review by Juliana Van Amsterdam