Andrew Bird Discovers Pop

In late 1999, Andrew Bird was preparing to record his third album for Rykodisc with his band Bowl of Fire when he decided it might be a good idea to plug into what was happening in pop music. “I made a big deal about walking into a record store and buying my first modern pop record,” he says, without irony. After all, less than three years before, the songwriter, singer, and violinist with the encyclopedic grip on prewar music used to sprint across the lobby of his apartment building so he wouldn’t be corrupted by the music that was piped in. His group’s first two albums, Thrills and Oh! The Grandeur, were filled with recombinant variations on decades-old genres, from classical to tango to swing to Celtic to coun-try blues–clever, catchy fusions that steadfastly ignored the last 50 years of popular music.

The record he purchased that day was the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, a rock album distinguished by its psychedelically expansive production. “I thought, ‘OK, this is technology put to good use,'” he says. “Two years ago I would’ve scoffed at overdubs or anything digital.” And what do you know: The Swimming Hour, which arrives in stores on Tuesday, employs a series of delirious string overdubs. “I accepted the process of making a record, producing in the purest sense of the word,” Bird says. Actually, he still feels a little weird about it: “It’s almost unholy how easy it is to put something together and make it sound like a million bucks using overdubs,” he says. “It just shouldn’t be right.”

Even more startling, the new album makes room for what can only be called rock ‘n’ roll. This transformation didn’t happen overnight–it happened night by night. Bird says several years of steady touring loosened his meticulous style and diminished his rigid historical sensibility. “We started giving everything more of a groove,” he says. “Touring had become this whole other system, playing night after night and getting into the adrenaline and rhythm of performing live.”

A month after he finished recording Oh! The Grandeur, in the spring of 1999, Bird spent three weeks in New Orleans, where he says new kinds of songs poured out of him. “I didn’t really recognize what I was writing,” he says. “I got into this routine where every morning I’d make myself coffee and just start writing all day.

It’s not something I have to discipline myself to do anymore. It just happens, and I haven’t really had any dry spells since then. It got to the point where I’d feel lucky if I was stuck in an airport for a couple of hours–‘All right, now I can just sit here and write.'”

Except for “Way Out West,” with its stale “Rawhide” vibe, and a player-piano take on the Mississippi Sheiks classic “Too Long,” none of the new tunes sounds like a period piece. “Two Way Action,” the album’s bright, shiny opener, features indelible garage guitar riffing, masterful dynamic shifts, and sexy vocal harmonies with Nora O’Connor, who guests on much of the album. “Core and Rind” sounds like a lost Donovan hit riding on a slinky Latin rhythm with a Zombies organ break. “Why?” is a noirish blues accented by Bird’s slippery Billie Holiday-style vocal phrasing, and “How Indiscreet” sounds like an old Ray Charles soul-gospel gem–complete with Raelettes-style call-and-response backups by O’Connor and Kelly Hogan–zapped into the future by the relentless rhythmic drive of bassist Josh Hirsch and drummer Kevin O’Donnell. And some of the very best songs, like “11:11” and “Waiting to Talk,” remind me of Rufus Wainwright in their truly timeless melodic beauty.

“It was really liberating to not work off of the historical contexts anymore,” Bird says. “The songs might sound like something in particular, and maybe you can put your finger on something and say, ‘Oh, that sounds like some 60s garage rock,’ but I definitely wasn’t listening to anything like that. We really tried to push ourselves not to use stock footage for rhythm, but to experiment, to find things that seem to come from nowhere, and I think most of this record came out of that.”

Since the completion of the album last summer, Bird’s band has undergone major changes as well: Hirsch and guitarist Colin Bunn have departed, and the new lineup features O’Donnell on drums, O’Connor on vocals, Andy Hopkins (of Kelly Hogan’s band and Mr. Rudy Day) on electric guitar, and Jimmy Sutton (leader of the jump-blues combo Four Charms) on electric bass. This version of the group will celebrate the release of The Swimming Hour with a performance at Metro on Saturday, April 14. The Handsome Family and the duo of Leroy Bach and Edward Burch open.


Two notable figures from the electronic-music underground perform in Chicago this week: On his recent debut album, Lipswitch (Schematic), Atlanta’s Richard Devine sets a claustrophobia-inducing soundscape of industrial hums, high-pitched squeals, rubbery tones, and morphing thwacks and pings to hyperkinetic post-Autechre beats. You could almost dance to his stuff–but you’d look pretty funny. He shares a bill with like-minded locals Salvo Beta on Thursday, April 5, at the Double Door. The same night Florian Hecker of Germany appears at 6Odum; on his disorienting album I T IS0161975 (Mego), he patiently shuffles slippery sound files into compositions that shift at a glacial pace–his clicks, scrapes, whirs, gurgles, and pulses flicker like environmental recordings. On Tuesday, April 3, at HotHouse, Hecker will also collaborate with local video artists Chris Clepper and Christian Matts as part of an “improvised multimedia” event called Interface 2001.04.03.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.