November 7, 2012

Test Spins: Andrew Bird, Hands of Glory

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Andrew Bird has had quite a career. Between seven studio albums since 1996, constant touring that has resulted in several live albums, countless collaborations and a smattering of various projects here and there, Bird has still managed to go relatively unnoticed by the mainstream. Discovering his music is like stumbling upon some precious treasure that possesses each listener with a different power; to some, Bird’s work holds sentimental, precious value, while to others his sweeping epics have a sort of hypnotic force from which it’s nearly impossible to break free. Bird’s work is not as much music as it is art: It’s intricate, malleable and infallibly beautiful.His latest release, Hands of Glory, is a joyous celebration of that uniqueness and is perhaps one of his best efforts. There’s something to be said about a classically trained musician who has come to be universally recognized for his unparalleled whistling skills as well as for his violin expertise. This ironic yet genius combination of a casual habit and musical proficiency is just what defines Bird: His music is part whimsy and spontaneity, part painstaking detail and arrangement.Hands of Glory has been labeled the “companion piece” to the record Break it Yourself, also released earlier this year. But the records could not be more different. While both albums were recorded in live takes in the comfort of Bird’s family farm in Illinois, Hands of Glory is distinctly more approachable and welcoming. Break it Yourself, while it contained  exuberant whistling and strokes of the violin, was an overall somber record. Hands of Glory is pretty much the opposite: Bird’s extraordinary whistling is rarely heard and his typically soaring violin is instead treated as a fiddle, an interpretation of his instrument that we haven’t heard his much earlier albums like 1999’s O! The Grandeur and 2001’s The Swimming Hour. The record is also decidedly more carefree; recorded live to tape by Bird and his backing band surrounding a single microphone, the songs evoke a sort of camaraderie not just amongst the players, but between them and the listener. Hands of Glory captures what Break it Yourself does not: the magic of experiencing Bird in a live setting where he’s free to exercise his many talents without limit.Break it Yourself was simply just another Andrew Bird album: lots of violin and lots of whistling. But Hands of Glory pretty much avoids the sound that has come to be associated with Bird’s name over the years. While it still contains moments that are undeniably Bird-esque, the album is for the most part a foray into new territory for Bird in both sound and arrangement. On the jazzy and bass-heavy opener “Three White Horses,” one of the few original songs on the album, the violin acts as the ambient undertone rather than the main attraction. His take on the traditional country hoedown “Railroad Bill” finds Bird using his violin as a fiddle rather than in the typical orchestral manner, a form also featured on his cover of The Handsome Family’s “When the Helicopters Come.” The fiddle sound is used to the best effect on the lovely cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” This new sound is an unexpected yet welcome change of pace. Another standout is “Orpheo,” a gorgeous acoustic reinterpretation of “Orpheo Looks Back” off Break it Yourself.Of course, Hands of Glory would not be an Andrew Bird album without a nearly ten-minute looping tour-de-force of violin riffs and ambient voice effects. Bird clearly has a blast in his country-folk zone, but mesmerizing closing number “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses” finds Bird back in his element: Looped whistling, vocals, violin and xylophone abound. Bird’s venture into a folksier realm is a refreshing change, but the final track brings him back down the Earth to give us the Andrew Bird we all know and love. Hands of Glory proves that Bird never fails to deliver breathtaking work, no matter what genre or mood he finds himself in.

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Original Author: Sydney Ramsden

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