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Andrew Bird, "Noble Beast" (Fat Possum) [2 STARS]

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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.

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4 Comments

Man. Pitiful review son. I would never classify Bird as an eccentric. Maybe you do because his lyrics are obscure? Surely that doesn't justify him being lumped in with Beefheart and Waits. All his songs on Noble Beast maintain all your prototypical song structure characteristics (timbre, rhythm, melody, etc.). It's merely his lyrics that become "odd". But honestly, they're not odd. He's said that his lyrics are merely a reflection of what he feels is appropriate at the moment.

In other words, even HE doesn't know what he's talking about necessarily. So please, don't be scared.

Oh and if you find the whistling annoying...well, wah-wah...too bad--go listen to 95% of all other music to avoid whistling. Telling readers that you just plain don't like something about an artist tells us nothing about the music itself. It just makes you sound like a hack.

Why bother reviewing an album by an artist you previous have not liked? Basically all you've done is reaffirm your dislike. Well done.

I agree with Frank; this is lazy journalism. You don't seem to say much of anything about the album you purport to review. Description--which seems like the bare minimum a critical appraisal can achieve, a point of departure--is preempted by a categorical disavowal of his work. And the categories are confusing. While a cute rhetorical flourish, what does your weight have to do with anything? What does the body-type of a Bird fan say about his music? And how is it that his singing can be reduced to "whining" if it is emotionally hollow to begin with? (There are more and often better ways to express emotion than to declare what emotion you are feeling.) And if his lyrics were merely exercises with a thesaurus, wouldn't you be able to decipher them? Yet you insinuate they are meaningless. Perhaps they are what all good lyrics are: not just a series of discretely meaningful words strung together, but something with an internal logic all its own--a logic, I might add, that is subsumed in your "review" by your own temperament. You have every right to express it, of course. But it has very little to do with something Andrew Bird did or didn't do on this record.

I came across this via a Google search and just had to leave a comment which, funny enough, concurs with the previously-left comments on your review.

Pathetic.

That would be my one-word review of your "review," which is a complete and utter joke, for the reasons cited by the previous critics of your prose, as well as for my own reasons, some of which I will attempt to intimate to you in the following paragraphs, assuming confusion does not arise from any "incomprehensible but impressively Thesaurus-literate" statements that I might make.

If you follow Bird's own words throughout his career, you will find numerous statements from him about his lyrics that make your criticism and dislike of them moot. He has said that he usually cares more for the sound of the words (musicality) than their meanings, since words have a tempo all their own; i.e. despite the seemingly meaningless combinations present in Bird's lyric sheets, those same combinations create beautiful sounds when heard with the rest of the instruments in the intended song.

As for his whistling, whether or not it is "annoying" is utterly subjective; you might as well say that Bob Dylan's music "requires the listener to find pop appeal and hooks galore in the potentially off-putting sounds of Dylan's slippery voice and recurring sonic tics and tricks--from that annoying harmonica to the guitar strumming..."

And, to echo what someone else said, what does being "an overweight guy with glasses" have to do with your providing this horribly-produced excuse for a review? In the 35 years of my being on this earth, I don't think I have ever heard of someone using weight and eyesight as determinating factors in one's ability to review music. I think the true story is that you just don't know how to write a review or at the least took a break on this one.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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