Andrew Bird's whistled, wily works

Setting the mood
By MICHAEL ALAN GOLDBERG  |  January 28, 2009

TUNED OUT: “I might have some subconscious awareness of the audience, because sometimes I get slightly embarrassed about something I’ve written.”

"Steamy, fecund, decaying, kind of mossy, woodsy . . . cloudlike, thick, saturated."

Sitting in the back of the hired car that's shuttling him around Manhattan for a day packed full of promotional duties, Andrew Bird sounds as if he were playing The $100,000 Pyramid — category: "Things I Wanted My New Album To Sound Like" — as he rattles off the evocative string of moods he pursued while making his just-released eighth studio album,Noble Beast (Fat Possum).

"I had a very unusually clear idea of the textures I wanted to hear," the 35-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist continues. "This one was more tone-driven than previous ones. I've always from an early age been obsessed with tone and resonance, and that was a big part of this record."

That's not surprising to hear from a virtuosic violinist and accomplished whistler who's honed both those talents since childhood and has explored the nuances of sound across his recording career. What's especially gratifying about NobleBeast, however, is that though Bird has translated his abstract visions into an array of interesting sonics meticulously arranged and produced, there are songs here: 14 appealing, well-focused, and — despite the year of work that went into them — effortless-sounding tunes. Bird's delicate tenor and penchant for warm, rich melodies can make a believer out of anyone who ever fell for a Belle and Sebastian, Jens Lekman, or Sufjan Stevens song. It's difficult to resist singing (or whistling) along as he glides from the breezy, emotive tropicália of "Masterswarm" to the jangly Wilco-isms (circaSummerteeth) of "Fitz & Dizzyspells" to the Appalachian fiddle-and-organ-dappled country ballad "Effigy" to the skittery, distortion-soaked "Not a Robot, But a Ghost."

Bird's most fully realized and inviting album, Noble Beast is also a far cry from his early career, when he was under the sway of zydeco, jazz, and old-time Euro cabaret folk, playing regularly with the first incarnation of Squirrel Nut Zippers, and making LPs in near-obscurity. Since reinventing himself as an indie-pop troubadour this decade, he's had to come to terms with the expectations, and the closer attention, of his rapidly ballooning fan base.

"Sometimes I'm offending my own sensibilities, but I don't really think so much about how it might shake someone else. I might have some subconscious awareness of the audience, because sometimes when I'm writing, I do get slightly embarrassed about something I've written. But then I just get even more fixated on whatever it was that made me embarrassed. Usually that's a good sign. Maybe you're getting to something that's painfully close to the bone."

While working on Noble Beast, Bird — who is usually guarded about his privacy and spends much of his non-touring time on his family's farm in rural Illinois — opened up about his creative process as a contributor to the New York Times' "Measure for Measure" blog. It was generally a positive experience, he says, and yet the "How's my living?" chorus of "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" was directly influenced by some of the more exasperating feedback.

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Related: Annie in Wonderland, Photos: Sunday at Bonnaroo 2009, Slideshow: Andrew Bird at the Orpheum, More more >
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