A funny thing happened to Chicago singer, songwriter, violin virtuoso and whistler nonpareil Andrew Bird on the way to recording his fifth studio solo album: Seemingly dedicated to hiding in the margins with the odd mix of old-time jazz, Brechtian cabaret and gypsy blues that characterized his early releases, he somehow morphed into a very Public Radio-friendly pop star and super-geek sex symbol, selling more than 100,000 copies of his last disc "Armchair Apocrypha" (2007) and becoming the SAT high-scorers' answer to Ben Folds or a straighter (in every sense of the word) Rufus Wainwright.
As Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten recently put it in a fawning New York Times profile of the artist, "When Andrew plays [here,] we can squeeze in a lot more [people] because so many of them are skinny girls with glasses."
The buzz on "Noble Beast," which Bird's label and management is hoping will see him break through to an even larger audience, is that it significantly strips down the self-conscious flourishes of his earlier solo releases and old albums with his band Bowl of Fire in favor of something more closely resembling straightforward pop. But that requires the listener to find pop appeal and hooks galore in the potentially off-putting sounds of Bird's slippery voice and recurring sonic tics and tricks--from that annoying whistling to the pizzicato violin-plucking--to say nothing of deciphering his often cold, incomprehensible but impressively Thesaurus-literate lyrics.
"Tenuous at best was all he had to say/When pressed about the rest of it, the world that is/From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to Porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and harbor-sorts who hang around in quotes a lot," Bird sings in "Tenuousness." You'll still be scratching your head over that one when he follows it up by imitating a cranky linguistics professor decrying "Our nomenclature's washing away" in "Nomenclature" and telling us that "I cracked the codes that end the war" in the Radiohead-aping "Not a Robot, But a Ghost." Hey, I'm glad he understands what he's talking about!
[A correction from Bird's publicist: "That lyric is actually 'From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots/Who hang around the ports a lot.'" Ah, OK, that makes more sense....]
In the end, my problem with Bird remains the same as it's been from the start of his career: As impressive as his soundscapes can be--and I do dig the singing saw, even if I still shirk away from the whistling and the whining--there is an emotional hole at the heart of Bird's music that separates him from the truly great and genre-defying pop eccentrics, whether we're talking Brecht and Weill or Beefheart and Waits. But then I'm an overweight guy with glasses, so take that for what it's worth.