For all ye hip-hop heads and indie-kids hoping to jump a sound and call it your own before the whole world blows up about it, please look elsewhere. Andrew Bird is painfully uncool, add to that he whistles and uses the fiddle as the main instrumentation for the bulwark of his catalog, which unfortunately falls under the genre of folk music. I’d recommend instead articles by lember Hemben or Colleen Walsh-Jervis, fine writers the lot who keep their ear to the rail in a tireless effort to bring you the hippest, up to the minute fresh acts.
Now, for the adults left in the audience, harken yourselves back to the gin soaked years of the nineties Zoot Suit revivalists Squirrel Nut Zipper. Tracks like “The Ghost of Stephen Foster” or “Hell” proved that popular music could be dark without ever distorting a guitar, without actually even featuring guitars. The soloist behind all those wicked fiddle leads was a young man trained in the classical Suzuki method by the name of Andrew Bird.
Coming down the years proved a struggle for this young man. Hopelessly ahead of folk’s third blossoming in the mid-Aughties, and producing intricate, alarmingly sophisticated pop oeuvres that stretched well beyond the radio’s allowable time constraints Andrew Bird was a maestro without an audience. Shifting through record companies as if they were a deck of cards, Bird received mixed reviews. Due to lyrics that incorporated metaphors that could blow the average audience’s mongrel mind, song topics that crushed the universal emotions under weighty layers of transmutation, time travel, and the murky depths at the bottom of the ocean, sung sweetly and without forced emotion between wavering time signatures, on an electro-infused fiddle led country pop format Bird was a hard act to follow.
But much like the introduction of an invasive species, the handful of followers of this strange atypical music began to spread, developing something of a critical mass that now has Bird playing major festivals, receiving NPR accolades and basically at liberty to take his music in whichever direction he chooses. So his latest choice, recording an entire album of cover songs by the Handsome Family, a group just as obscure as he once was, is puzzling.
It’s best not to try to delve into the mind of a musician who consistently attempts to manipulate his audience through clever word play and intentionally dissonant concepts, but this is a real head scratcher, considering the prolific pace of output by Mr. Bird. One questions, who is this Handsome Family, and why an entire album? But more importantly, are they really handsome?
Comely might be a more appropriate adjective, but their body of work is as lovely, (dark but lovely) as they come. True Detective fans will recognize the Handsome Family as the band behind the credit lead-in track Far from Any Road, on that gem of a series, and indeed Bird has covered the group before. Way back on 2003’s Weather Systems, Bird recorded, “Don’t be Scared” included also on Things Are Really…
Whatever the reasoning behind it, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of… is a pairing on the order of wine and cheese, poverty and alcoholism, or peas and carrots. From the opening track’s “Der Kölner Dom” setting the album vacillates between Biblical imagery and mythology Americana. There is everything brave and tragic to be found in the Handsome Family’s verses, and Mr. Bird’s vocal delivery is sincere as a secondary device. Neither does the fiddle work attempt to outstrip the source material’s original design. Say what you will for Ketch Secor’s (OCMS) flawless fiddle work, Bird is without peer on the violin, and this is no more evident than by the restraint employed in the instrument’s delivery on this album. Following the stories contained within the ten tracks of Things Are Really… lends one to the conclusion this collaboration is elevating the folk narrative into the realm of High Art.
For an album you won’t hear on the radio, for one your friends won’t give a damn about and few outside the Adult Contemporary market will give serious consideration to, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of… is damn near perfect.