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Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

on January 06, 2009, 9:45am

A college professor of mine once described playwright Michael Frayn as the kind of guy who’s writing great works of art while we, the regular people, sleep. While we wake to brush our teeth, he completes another play and accepts an award. As frustrating as his perfection is, you can’t help but fall for him. The work is good and you’re always anxious to see what he produces next.

Chicagoan Andrew Bird is the music world’s equivalent. In a dozen years he’s produced more than a dozen albums and EPs. He rarely, if ever, missteps, and more often than not you become obsessed with his newest release. Do you know how good he is? Even his whistling skills are superb. Ask anyone who has seen him live: The man can whistle like he’s part bird, part freight train.

Why do I tell you this? Because Bird’s new album, Noble Beast, is very good. Of course. Secretly, you wish it were just okay or even lackluster. But luckily it’s good, as if he wanted to please your eyes just despite you.

Noble Beast isn’t much of a departure from 2007’s fantastic Armchair Apocrypha. Bird has perfected the art of melding string plucks, soft rhythms, violin, his lilting voice, and his superhuman whistling. The album’s first single and opening track, “Oh No”, has a little bit of all of the above. The mid-tempo song recalls the best moments of Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker, straddling pop, alt-country, and old-fashioned indie songwriting.

“Anonanimal”, another standout track (and another fun title to put alongside past tracks “/=/” and “Yawny at the Apocalypse”) finds Bird building up tension that makes you think he might pull out a full-on rock tune. Instead he keeps his edgy side just under the surface and layers on the violin to a frustratingly beautiful result.

Also typical of an Andrew Bird album are lyrics that sit comfortably between twee and clever, as well as phrasing that gives Alanis Morissette a run for her money in the syllable-stuffing department. On “Master Swarm” he effortlessly sings, “Oh and the young in their larval state, orchestrating plays / In vestments of translucent alabaster.”

Listeners who discovered Bird through the moderate indie hits “Plasticities” and “Imitosis” off of the last album might be disappointed that no single track is as outwardly catchy as either of these tunes. Still, Noble Beast continues Bird’s pattern of releasing strong, reliable records that don’t bring much new to the table. Fans are sure to find plenty to like about this album, and new listeners will be pleased to hear an intelligent, well-crafted album that doesn’t have any major hiccups. More importantly, put on some headphones and turn the album up. You’ll hear intricate layers and careful production that prove Bird isn’t coasting by in the least.

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