Pop Transcendence: Noble Beast by Andrew Bird (Music Review)

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Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird aims squarely at the pleasure center of the bookish indie set. His several acclaimed albums of postmodern chamber pop highlight his nimble playing and the warm electronics of his frequent collaborator, the drummer and producer Martin Dosh. 

Only a team as visionary as Bird and Dosh would strive to fix what isn’t broken and transcend this winning formula, as they have with Noble Beast, where suitelike song structures, instrumental interludes, and audacious lyrical constructions build and soar but never topple into excess.

“Masterswarm” begins with a minor-key acoustic prelude to a joyously orchestrated tango of violin flourishes and handclaps. Bird’s whistling and tremolo guitar splice the mood of Strictly Ballroom with that of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The arrangement employs addition, then subtraction, as the song’s instrumentation is gradually pared away until only the crushed bits of Dosh’s rhythm loop remain.

Indeed, Noble Beast‘s most successful moments are its most percussive and experimental, evenly blending Bird’s meticulous performances and Dosh’s manipulated grooves. Lugubrious pitch-shifted drums lumber across “Souverian”; the canter and shuffle of “Not a Robot, but a Ghost” ultimately careens into a spooky, swirling meltdown of queasy violin and bowed bass.

Bird’s favorite instrument is probably the English language itself. He’s still unable to resist a geeky portmanteau (“Anonanimal”), a smirking pun (“Fitz & Dizzyspells”), even the occasional palindrome. But we should be grateful he’s transcending pop clichés. You can get away with plenty of too-clever-by-half lyrical stunts if they’re buttressed by such brilliant arrangements and beguiling melodies.

This review is from the March-April 2009 issue of Utne Reader.

Listen Now to a Streaming Track:
“Masterswarm” by Andrew Bird from Noble Beast

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