I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I definitely went through a pretty serious clay-modeling phase.
That phase meant afternoons of sculpting little animals and 8-year-old imaginative miscellany out of colorful clay. And the weapon of choice when it came to making, let’s say, a furry monster or a bowl of noodles, was this:
It’s actually a garlic press, which to this day I’ve never seen used on garlic. The press, more importantly, bestowed upon the presser a magic touch with clay. A quick squeeze, and your amoebic lump emerges as crisp, winding ropes.
Keep that in mind when you sit down to listen to Andrew Bird‘s latest EP, Hands of Glory, released last week.
It’s ostensibly a companion piece to his earlier 2012 LP, Break It Yourself, but it’s much more an album of old made new, of Bird squeezing material through the garlic press into lilting melody lines and his own lyrical, arching phrases. Spaghetti à la Bird, made of another cook’s pasta dough.
Half the tracks are covers, a couple are revamps of his own work, and the first and last are re-imaginings of each other. For full appreciation, really, the album should come with annotations or footnotes for each song. But it doesn’t, so get ready to take some notes of your own. It’ll be worth it.
First, the simple. “Railroad Bill” — and I perked up when I saw it on the track listing — is a standard folk tune for the ages, a tale of a dashing and nonchalant rail-riding bad boy who, depending on the singer, does things like steal your wife and smoke cigars made of ten-dollar bills. Joan Baez, for example, does the song as a finger-picked elegy, warbling almost in lament of Bill’s badassery. Alt-folk band Crooked Still (personally, a favorite version) makes it a rollicking stomper.
Bird’s version is, wisely, somewhere between the two. A subdued start gets a jolt halfway through with, unsurprisingly, Bird letting loose on his violin into a long wail, rough yet nimble. A few nicely timed whoops nestled at the end of the take assure you the musicians were just as stoked about that track as you were to hear it.
His second stab at a folk standard features “If I Needed You,” a love tune from the troubled, talented Townes Van Zandt (who, in this video, rocks an amazingly dated mid-70s tunic while singing with timeless, heartbreaking simplicity). In this case, the clay comes out of the garlic press more layered, more luscious, more complicated, but the same color. (See what mileage is being drawn out of this metaphor?) It’s a beautiful rendition, with wide-open-plains fiddle opening into lightly stacked three-part harmonies. The tune sat heavily in my mind all week.
Bird’s two other covers, though, don’t hit the mark as directly. “When that Helicopter Comes” is a lighter-footed take on alt-country band The Handsome Family’s brooding track, but even the cover feels too eerie, out of place and overly wrought compared to its neighbors. And “Spirograph” is almost unrecognizable compared to its source material from Alpha Consumer. Bird works over and molds the chords, the tune, even the lyrics, and stretches parts out into a semi-chorus. It never feels like it reaches its peak, perhaps because the original song relies heavily on an instrumental vamp that doesn’t translate well into Bird’s melody-driven approach.
But when Bird turns the lens on himself, it’s a wonder. Most people are hopeless when it comes to self-editing, unable to put enough distance between themselves and their work to re-imagine anything but their first product. Bird, on the other hand, seems to relish the reprise. Opener “Three White Horses” talks about the end of things with a comfortingly straight-ahead stare. Bird asks, “Don’t dismiss it like it’s easy / Tell me, what’s so easy about coming to say goodbye? ” — then evokes a light ghost with a warbling musical-saw sound. But when he unpacks the same tune and lyrics in the 10-minute “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” the result is even more pared down. The same wilting ghost sound now skips across cricket buzz in some sort of Elysian Fields denouement, complete with cosmic reverb-laced slow chord progressions at the end. It’s almost masterful.
Second-to-last track “Orpheo” alludes to Orpheus, the Greek musician of myth who traveled into Hades’ realm to retrieve his wife Eurydice after she died from a snakebite. Orpheus manages to charm Hades into letting her follow him out of the underworld, but is warned that if he looks back before she’s out, she’ll disappear — and, because it’s an ancient and tragic Greek tale, of course he does, and she’s gone forever.
Bird already explored Orpheus’s woe in Break It Yourself‘s “Orpheo Looks Back,” which is surprisingly up-tempo, even as it talks about crossing a muddy river (the Styx, presumably) and being told “you don’t look / ’cause it’ll disappear.” But “Orpheo,” stripped of the rest of its title and its rosy-colored glasses, is all the stronger on Hands of Glory.
If “Orpheo Looks Back” reflects the optimism Orpheus felt upon being granted his Hail-Mary request for his wife’s return, “Orpheo” is the slow, numb feeling he must have had in the first second of turning around and seeing Eurydice vanish — stretched out into four wrenching minutes. It’s easily the best of the EP. And though on its own, it’s a plaintive, beautiful track, it’s all the more so if you know what Bird is thinking of while singing: all the previously told tales of Orpheus, Bird’s own version, and all those still to come.
Andrew Bird — If I Needed You (download)
Andrew Bird — Railroad Bill (download)
Andrew Bird — Orpheo (download)