Andrew Bird, 'Hands of Glory'
By Mack Hayden
October 30, 2012
There is the occasional artist who defies established convention while deepening tradition. Men and women such as these innovate within the framework of what has begotten them. They don’t just make the old sound new, they bring resurrection and originality to tried and true methods of creation. Recent years have seen reincarnations of sixties folk archetypes and popular radio seems to be in the business of playing the retroactive. So the old is new again and regression has become progress. Into all of this steps Andrew Bird.
Each Andrew Bird album reassures its listeners that he is in possession of a vocabulary all his own. The sounds he deals in, the whistles and staccato violin he peddles coagulate and form old-soul songs that reject temporal locality. Everything in you wants to pin a particular era’s influence on him but he simply won’t allow it. From his earliest work to the most recent full-length LP, Break It Yourself, Bird writes songs like Monet used to paint. He is an impressionist through and through, sonically depicting his music in splashes and waves.
The latest release from Bird is something of an anomaly. Not really a collection of b-sides and not really an EP, he’s taken to billing Hands of Glory as a companion piece to his last album. It’s peopled by covers of old country songs, reworkings of Break It Yourself tracks and a couple out-and-out originals thrown in for good measure. This is no place for the existential and angular jams of “Armchair Apocrypha” or the operatically executed “Mysterious Production of Eggs.” It’s a down-home, fireside collection of songs that charm but occasionally lose what makes Bird so wonderful in the first place.
Where his other records are influenced by the jazz and folk of the past, amalgamating into a mercurial sound unkind to any who hope to put it in a box, the songs here are largely old fashioned and conventional. “Railroad Bill” is an often covered old folk song and Bird brings little newness to what has been done with it before. He throws in a violin solo sure to invoke smiles but, overall, it lacks the progressive edge he brings to most of his other music.
It’s not that any of these tracks are bad, it’s just that they probably would have been more appreciated a little later on in his career. Bruce Springsteen’s recent Seeger Sessions brought together a bunch of folk covers that could be properly celebrated because he already had a long career of original albums, some hits, some misses, behind him. In such a scenario, a tribute to the old odes of the past is fitting. Hands of Glory jumps the gun a little bit. Bird shows his cards too early. In a way, it’s like going behind the scenes and unweaving the rainbow. So here are the influences that went into creating the original music in the first place. It doesn’t make the show worse, just a little less magical.
Let’s not get too down on the man though. Though less busy and more stripped down, there are some songs here that touch on simple serenity as well as any of his older tracks. As far as the covers go, “If I Needed You” is a brief treatise on the unexplainable pureness offered in easygoing song structures and lovelorn lyrical entreaties.
It should be no surprise that the real hits here are those which Bird composed himself; he is a talented revitalizer but a stellar composer. “Orpheo” is a beautifully soft-spoken, acoustic retooling of his previous album’s fast-paced “Orpheo Looks Back.” Taking on the old myth of Orpheus’s descent into Hades, both versions awaken the listener’s ears to Bird’s timelessness. His music engages in ancient mythologies, jazz noodling, folk simplicity while all the time pondering the postmodern ethos all around us. He’s a walking thesis statement suggesting the human condition probably hasn’t altered that much over the centuries after all.
This collection is most praiseworthy for its bookends. “Three White Horses” opens things on an apocalyptic bass groove, eerie but nonthreatening. It sets up the rest of the songs perfectly as a dimly lit house we can casually explore and possibly unravel. His greatest songs always seem to be in possession of a secret just evading the listener’s grasp and this opening track is cut from the same cloth. Closing it all out is the wandering, nine minute “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses.” As a companion piece to Break It Yourself, the album closer is an apt introduction to the world of its predecessor, a backyard opening on to the fields and forests of the previous record.
While a little less awe-inspiring than his other albums, Hands of Glory is something of a guest room in the mansion Bird is building with his entire discography. Other rooms are filled with startlingly original inventions or more grandiose designs but this is the perfect place to relax your musical synapses and enjoy without pretense.