Andrew Bird’s soft vocals and inspired violin techniques have teamed up to put out another album for 2012. Following hot on the tails of March’s Break It Yourself, the Hands of Glory EP is described by Bird as a “musical companion” to the earlier 2012 album. Instead of B-sides and leftovers, however, Hands of Glory is part new material and part reimaginings of other works to augment the experience of Break It Yourself.
Now the indie folk artist can claim to be prolific; he has had a long career at 39 years old. Bird studied violin performance at Northwestern University before releasing his first traditional solo album, The Music of Hair, the same year he graduated in 1996. In between that album and Glory, Bird played violin and sang on three Squirrel Nut Zippers albums, released three albums with a group of Chicago musicians called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, appeared as the lead singer and violinist for jazz group Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six on two albums, and only then began to truly pursue a solo career. He has gone from wildly whimsical on The Mysterious Production of Eggs to rock-influenced on Armchair Apocrypha to folksy and beautiful on Noble Beast.
With all that buildup you’d think his next offering would offer a new spin on the old Bird, the Hands of Glory/Break It Yourself duo is just “Andrew-Bird” enough to be underwhelming. Sure, it has his signature whistling, his signature well written lyrics, and his signature high-brow attitude. Together, perhaps, there just isn’t the warm, stinging burn of brilliance I’ve come to expect. Hands of Glory alone, though, still manages to impress when compared to the artist’s discography.
Glory offers eight songs, which Bird pieces together into a pretty, cohesive short album. Three of the songs are country/folk covers, which, with the title of the album, attempt to scream backwater country influence, as though Bird is proclaiming to the heavens his pop ways are over and his violin is going home with him now. It lends a feeling at once both obvious and comforting. He does a smart thing by alternating original songs with these covers, making sure the musical themes remain interrelated.
“Three White Horses” begins the work on a haunting note, drawing listeners in with a jarring guitar strumming that leads into Bird’s waveringly beautiful voice, crooning there will be “three white horses when you go that way / you’ll need somebody when you come to die.” On a first listen the song does not make much of an impression, the listener searching for something more bombastic or distinctively whimsical, but coming back after a few go-arounds leaves one breathless. The lyrics are simple but meaningful here, and once the listener has become comfortable with the motifs of the album the ethereal musical elements and heavy subject matter limn themselves more readily.
This apocryphal opener leads into a cover of The Handsome Family’s “When the Helicopters Come,” a rougher roadhouse prediction of the end of times. At first, again, I was underwhelmed, but after searching out the original, I understood Bird’s genius. The Handsome Family’s discordant vocals and usage of purely traditional instruments make the song blunt and literal, whereas Bird’s treatment with fiddle and wailing violin, as well as his aery vocals, give the song a mystical air. It is still rough-and-tumble and beckons to country influence, but there is no doubt this song is better for Bird’s tweaking.
The next cover is Bird’s version of a traditional song, “Railroad Bill.” While technically very good, this is the most disappointing piece, with not much being done to differentiate the song from any other version. The most uptempo of the album, this unoriginal song sounds and feels like it has no place on an eight-song EP in companion to a decidedly un-country full-length.
He also does an oft-covered ditty from Townes Van Zandt, “If I Needed You,” which features some brilliant fiddling and plucking, that fits much better into the milieu of the work. It is a very optimistic, sunny song, and Bird’s handling highlights this quality with constantly crescendoing voices and down-home violin appearances.
Another Bird original, “Spirograph,” unlike “Three White Horses,” beckons immediately to the artist’s usual style. It is not old or routine, just very much an addition to his library of playful lyrical works. It features an excellent example of Bird’s ability to twist words: “Echoes down waterwells, picked up in sacred spirographs, weekend and winters unendable bendable, baby.”
“Orpheo” is a companion song to a longer version on Break It Yourself, which alludes to the myth of Orpheus. I much prefer “Orpheo” to the longer version, which includes intentional production that relegates vocals to a priority lower than the music. The long and slow drags on the violin strings in “Orpheo” do so more emotionally than the more uptempo “Orpheo Looks Back.” It also includes an absolutely beautiful melding of violin and vocals that show even though this is the least exciting offering on the album, Andrew Bird is not an artist who produces bad music.
To bookend the album is a long instrumental exploration (nine-minute’s worth) of the themes of “Three White Horses,” with “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses.” The light background vocalizations coalesce with Bird’s mastery of his plucking and plaintive instrumentalizations to create the real reason for this EP. It not only ties together the whole work, but it is also one of Bird’s best songs to date, building upon the whole EP’s string of themes to create something so perfectly relevant it may bring listeners chills and tears. One thing’s for sure, this song won’t put anyone to sleep who is able to grasp the gravity of human existence.
Andrew Bird remains one of my favorite artists for his overwhelming ability to combine his same tremendous violin talents and his same breathy voice to create truly novel works time after time. Hands of Glory is an unremarkable addition to Bird’s resume of music only in that it, as per usual, continues his consistently outstanding streak of innovation.
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