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Andrew Bird, Maps & Atlases find fun on new albums

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Dave Davison is having some fun. So he says, anyway, repeatedly.

When he called from Paris, where his band Maps & Atlases just finished another European tour, he said he was "really having fun." The tour, too, was "really fun." He expects the subsequent U.S. tour also to be "a lot of fun." The sophomore Maps & Atlases album making the tours possible, "Beware and Be Grateful" (Barsuk), was "really fun to make."

It's really fun to listen to, as well. A sound that once threatened to be too carefully studied blossoms on "Beware and Be Grateful" into a rosy cheekiness, some daring doings and, in a tale of resistance against "Vampires," a moshy, Morrissey-esque march.

Much of the same can be said of Andrew Bird's new music. Practically an old-timer in the indie genres now, Bird, 38, has released his ninth album, "Break It Yourself" (Mom & Pop), and it is, likewise, fun -- one of the cheeriest, most carefree sets he's recorded in years. Several times (particularly the buoyant "Lusitania"), Bird's trademark whistling sounds less like its usual desolate country portent and more like a loose-limbed fella with hands in his pockets kicking stones down the lane.

Both Chicago bandleaders have hometown shows this weekend, and both spoke in recent interviews of tapping into new creative inspirations and, more than anything, trusting the creative flow of their respective collectives.

with So Many Dynamos, and Sister Crayon
• 9 p.m. May 11
• Metro, 3730 N. Clark
• Tickets: $16; (800) 514-ETIX;

with Mucca Pazza
• 8 p.m. May 12
• Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
• Tickets, $29.50-$49.50; (800) 745-3000;

"On this record, more than any other, I involved the band," Bird said from New York, where he was beginning the East Coast leg of the current tour. "I trusted them more than I have in years to add to the sound whatever they came up with."
"Our first two EPs were mostly a documentation of what we were already doing live, and our first record [2010's "Perch Patchwork"] was laid down really fast," singer-guitarist Davison said of the Maps & Atlases catalog. "The fun part of making this album was that we had enough time . . . to wait for the unpredictable things. It was the perfect balance of understanding how we all have challenged ourselves in the past and how to push it even further but in a fun and playful and exciting way."

Fun things happen when you get away from it all.

bird050912.jpgFor Bird, that meant retreating to 40 acres of hilly farmland in western Illinois, near the Mississippi River. A decade ago, after Bird disbanded his Bowl of Fire, he and his father restored an old barn on the property, with a plan to create a recording studio he would use from that point on. "Break It Yourself," however, is the first recorded product of the barn. He says he tried to make 2005's "The Mysterious Production of Eggs" there but scrapped it. In the intervening years, it has been a personal retreat.

This time, though, Bird gathered his Minneapolis-based musicians -- Jeremy Ylvisaker (guitars, keys), Mike Lewis (bass, sax) and Martin Dosh (drums) -- at the barn, where they gelled like never before.

"I started playing with Martin six years ago. He really gets me," Bird said. "This record has bass lines, too, that are unusual and cool. Mike Lewis is this great jazz tenor player who happens to play bass. Everyone's got a jazz mind-set. They like to roll with the unexpected, pull things out of the fire, take a more free approach to everything. I knew they'd appreciate the context of working at the barn and be, like, not too dogmatic about the process. So we set up the session with the premise of, 'Let's come down to the barn, hang out together for eight days, eat together and roll tape.' We figured it would be a record that wouldn't come out for two or three years, if we got anything out of it at all. So there wasn't the usual claustrophobic studio pressure and . . . very little scrutiny. No headphones, no listening back to everything."

For the new Maps & Atlases music, Davison and his former Columbia College mates -- Erin Elders (guitar), Shiraz Dada (bass) and Chris Hainey (drums) -- also retreated to rural-ish environs, after working out some of the material in the basement of Davison's parents' home in Lake County, Ind. They met Jason Cupp (Nurses, Good Old War) at his ARC Studios in Omaha.

"The studio has a house connected to it that's nice and comfortable," Davison said. "It was a welcoming environment where we all could be, together, and not trapped in a formal setting. It was this homey place that also had all this great equipment, and the ability of all of us to be together did generate something new and different, maybe more unified than before, and it was just fun to watch ideas get stumbled upon and unfold, to see everyone playing with stuff they'd never messed with before."

The results showed on the European tour. Davison said the new material feels "fresh in a way that's somehow beyond it just being new" and that several songs ("Winter," "Remote and Dark Years") are "direct enough to have a current, not new but like electricity."

For Bird, it's all about the creative process: When I last interviewed him in 2008, he was blogging about songwriting for The New York Times. "Sometimes being too self-aware can be the enemy of creativity," he said then. "Having to explain things too much pulls the mysteriousness out of the creative process, makes you fit it into the explicable." The concern hasn't stopped him, though. While "Break It Yourself" was in process, Bird delivered a TED talk about the creation of one of its liveliest songs, "Eyeoneye."

"I enjoy the dialogue," Bird said this time. "I'll open up things to the audience sometimes when writing a new song. I get excited, I show it off. ... I like talking about it. I wish interviewers would ask me more about what the songs mean."

Indeed, most artists shy from such questions, insisting the work should speak for itself. Not Bird. So, OK, "Eyeoneye" -- what's that all about?

"That one started with a conversation with a friend of mine in Chicago," Bird said, clearly relishing the opportunity to dish the backstory. "He told me about this kind of cancer where the tumor cells replicate different parts of the body, so you might have an ear growing in your stomach or an extra foot on your arm or something. We were talking about how fascinating that was, this kind of feedback loop within the body. . . . I like stories like that. The song works with that idea, about a self-reliant person who doesn't need anybody else and questioning how well that's going to go. In nature, whenever something gets too close to its own genesis, things flip out. You feed cows their own brains, they get mad cow disease. I thought of how it relates to a personal level. You can't massage your own shoulders. Cutting your own hair doesn't feel as good as when someone else does it. Breaking one's own heart -- is that even possible?"

So "Eyeoneye" opens with a wink:

Go ahead and congratulate yourself
Give yourself a hand, the hand is yours
When the eye that eyes itself is your eye
And the ear that hears itself is near
Then you're getting too close to your source
You've done the impossible now

Of course, he concluded, "It turned out to be fun, anyway."

"You have to think and wander and walk around Chicago and let things like this come to you," Davison said of his own process. "Then you take it you're your band create the art, see if the ideas play nice with others. That's what makes it all come alive. That's what makes it fun. And it's supposed to be fun, right?"

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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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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 9, 2012 7:00 AM.

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