Andrew Bird has a sleepy, elastic way of singing his elusive, layered songs, and intermittently odd enunciation too. He uses solid, understandable words to create incomprehensible treatises on something resembling life, eschewing standard hooks and catchy melodies for carefully laid out, intertwining instrumental themes and snippet-like melodic motifs. The effect, once I let myself sink into it, is mysteriously convincing; not only do I return and return and get more and more out of it, I begin to believe that Bird is a unique talent–let the genre-meisters attempt to lay a genre on him, but there is none for what he is doing. The Chicago-based Bird has a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Northwestern, and might have double-majored in whistling if they had offered the right courses: Bird puts his lips together, blows, and a most eerie, flute-like whistle emerges–but you won’t hear it in this particular song. You will hear the violin, however. “Heretics” is from his new CD, Armchair Apocrypha, to be released later this month on Fat Possum Records. If you really want to hear the whistling, I suggest buying the CD—it’s really quite good, in an elusive and mysteriously convincing way.
A variation of the often effective one-note song (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Pump It Up,” et al) is the repetitive lyric song, where one or two words will repeat in each lyrical line but in each case matched with different subsequent words (Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Who By Fire” comes to mind; and there are others, just don’t ask me to name them right this moment). So here’s Julie Doiron, from the Maritimes in Canada: “No more singing in the woods/ No more singing in the car/ No more singing in the streets/ No more singing in the bar,” and so forth. Clearly the risk with such songs is that they will be, um, repetitive. But in the right hands, there is also the chance to make a certain kind of incisive and mesmerizing statement, and I think we have something like that going on here. Musically, the hypnotic, minor-key insistence underscores the lyrical focus, creating an uneasy sort of drive. The uneasiness, I think, is furthered by the rhythm guitar, which strums a relentless chord on the backbeat but somehow seems almost, each time, to miss the beat (you can hear its sneaky hesitation most clearly during the instrumental break at 1:20 or so). Whether Doiron is singing about the end of a relationship or something more threatening, such as the end of the chance–in this dire, dour day and age–to live a happy, expressive life, is unclear. Known more often for slower, quieter tunes, she wisely wraps things up quickly, which allows the repetitiveness to make the point without driving us crazy–as a matter of fact, even as the song clocks in at just 2:15, the lyrics–but for some lingering “No more”s, are through by 1:02. “No More” can be found on the CD Woke Myself Up, Doiron’s seventh, which was released by Jagjaguwar Records in January. The MP3 is available via the Jagjaguwar site.
“Machines” – Kiss Kiss
A full-bodied, melodramatic, squeaky, squawky, feverish, yet winsome waltz. Back to violin rock we go, but this time the violin’s electric and ghostly and mixed in with a kitchen-sink electronic orchestra featuring a variety of synthesized sounds and sound effects. “Machines” barrels along like some mad contraption, the three-quarter time lending a bizarre, 19th-century air to its careening, semi-apocalyptic ambiance. I’m a big fan of songs that balance control and chaos like this, and this tumbly juggernaut definitely seems simultaneously unhinged and tightly directed. Singer Josh Benash all but roars here and there, while electric violinist Rebecca Schlappich yanks off-kilter strains and the occasional squeal from her amplified strings, all to that familiar carousel beat. The whole wild ride is over in two and a half minutes, leaving the listener a bit breathless and quickly ready to go back and do it all over again. Kiss Kiss is a quintet from upstate New York who have named themselves after Roald Dahl’s book of (often macabre) stories, for adults. “Machines” appears on the debut Kiss Kiss full-length, entitled Reality vs. the Optimist, which was released last month on Eyeball Records.
The MP3 is via the Eyeball site.