Review: Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself

At once a unique folk-pop multi-instrumentalist whistler and an almost cartoonishly dapper embodiment of all that is indie, Andrew Bird is a country-bumpkin’s heart-throb. He records in a barn in Illinois. He wears vests and has a perennial five-o-clock shadow. Sometimes he’s sad, sometimes he’s happy, sometimes he’s epic. He’s been on a children’s show as a character named “Dr. Strings” and sang about all the different instruments he could repair. What’s more, he is incredibly literate.

(Bird’s lyrically splendid “Tenuousness” from Noble Beast)

Of late, Bird has been backed by an increasingly large band, but the best thing about him is that can do it all solo: a master of looping with a simple pedal system, his songs have always been reliant upon a spiraling and layered core of claps, violin pizzicatos, and whatever other instrument he decides to pick up.

(Skip to 0:33 to see Bird at his best on stage – just him and Dosh. The track is “Nervous Tick Motion” from his first solo album)

Break It Yourself, Bird’s fourth full album since going “solo” (in other words since he moved on from Squirrel Nut Zippers and Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire) displays all of his talents, and remains perfectly ensconced within the genre Bird has carved out for himself. But, whereas throughout his last album, Noble Beast, you could find indications of his off-kilter aesthetics – whether in the semi-nightmarish lyrics or the hypnotic loops of his drummer/keyboardist Martin Dosh (whose jazzy drum-focused albums you must check out) – every track on this lates effort could be comfortably played at your local Starbucks. Let me be clear though: that’s not a bad thing at all. Break It Yourself is a beautiful effort that unfolds with every repeat. Bird has simply relinquished some of his oddity in favor of a more unfurling and flowing sound.

(I know I’m stalling from giving you music from the new album, but listen to this performance of “Simple X”, which takes a risk with the Dosh-made drum loop, and turns ethereal because of it)

And, in some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised that this album holds few risks or surprises. Between this album and his last, Bird spent time creating the gorgeously quiet soundtrack for indie flick Norman, touring his instrumental-only EP Useless Creatures, and collaborating with his amp-man to create a sound-sculpture at the Guggenheim. He also did some songs on the new Muppets soundtrack. So he’s done lots of weird lately. Why not create a purely digestible, gorgeous and relaxing folk album? Why not let the band take more control and step back from complex loops?

(Listen to one of the album highlights, Dans Caribe):

Dans Caribe

In fact, the album may sound a bit flat only to those of us that know Bird for his weirdness. Break It Yourself is an album that meanders in an out of conventional song structures, tossing in unexpected female vocals (only credited in “Lusitania” to Annie Clark, a.k.a. the amazing St. Vincent) and featuring some transcendant instrumental breakdowns. “Hole in the Ocean Floor” is an excellent example of Bird’s ability to hold your attention with nothing but waves of strings. And, admittedly, the refrain in “Near Death Experience Experience” is the odd lyric “We’ll dance like cancer survivors” which may sound a bit out of place when you’re ordering your daily Grande Slim Mocha Frappuccino. But then again, god, who wouldn’t love “Lazy Projector”?

Perhaps what Break It Yourself demonstrates more than anything is that you should follow  Andrew Bird in all of his endeavors. His major releases are only a fraction of what he does. Like David Byrne, Bird is a musical force that expands beyond the album-after-album-after-album routine. I wouldn’t be surprised if his next output was a “Whistling For Dummies” book that was accompanied by some nice pen-on-tree-bark drawings. In the meantime, Break It Yourself will keep you warm as the spring breaks through, and it will make a great album for driving in the countryside.

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