Andrew Bird – Weather Systems EP

Andrew Bird
Weather Systems EP

Former Squirrel Nut Zippers sideman Andrew Bird has released his fourth album, Weather Systems, which at only nine tracks long still manages to feel expansive, less like an EP than an extended experimental piece. However, despite that experimental feel, melody is what is at its heart. Bird seems to draw as his source material the American forms of country, folk, and certain brands of jazz, but his instrumental choices are all his own. He’s primarily a fiddle player, and he seems to delight in finding all the various unpredictable ways in which that instrument can be used to create a soundscape. Bowed, pizzicato, plucked like a mandolin, deeply layered and looped: Bird makes an orchestra out of one fiddle, while also working in percussion, backing vocals by Nora O’Connor (of The Aluminum Group, The Blacks, and Bird’s former band Bowl of Fire), and something the liner notes call “space guitar” contributed by Mark Nevers.

This is Bird’s first album for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, a move away from the commercial potential offered by his old label, Rykodisk. Whether this was a matter of necessity or an intentional move toward a more independent-minded home I can’t say, obviously, but it’s certainly opened up Bird’s ability to do what he wants without the pressure to make a saleable product.

Bird travels his own road in many ways. Besides the unconventional instrumentation, there is also a cover of The Handsome Family’s “Don’t Be Scared” and an adaptation of a poem by Galway Kinnell called “First Song.” “First Song” is the strongest effort on the record. Bird casts it as a country waltz and sings it with a vulnerable, Jeff Buckley-like lilt in his voice. It’s a perfect find for Bird, portraying as it does the music of not only violins but also the bucolic noise of frogs and rusting cornstalks in a rural Illinois twilight. Weather Systems was recorded in a farmhouse where Bird moved to get away from the distractions of Chicago, and Kinnell’s romanticizing of the farm and of a lone boy listening to the sounds of nightfall captures what was most likely the thing that inspired Bird to make this music in the first place. It seems almost written for him, though it dates back to 1960.

The original songs are not so different from that in their tone (“Being alone, it can be quite romantic,” he sings at one point), though they tend to be more personal, more first-person. The best of these is the gorgeous “Lull,” with its pared-down sound and rambling lyric. “I’m all for moderation, but sometimes it seems / moderation itself can be a kind of extreme,” sings Bird, sounding at once cryptic and straightforwardly off-the-cuff.

Throughout most of the album, Bird’s voice sounds a lot like the singer from Red House Painters: he works the upper end of his register with his voice breathy, approaching but not entering falsetto. His melodies and the melancholic timbre of his songs evoke Rufus Wainwright more than anyone, and these two share more than that in there mutual appreciation for the eclecticism of the popular American musical forms of the last century and their refusal to reign in their explorations of what is possible to do on a pop record. Rufus’s efforts are certainly more polished, and he succeeds in hitting the mark more often than Bird does (the drifting softness of Bird’s songs tend to blend together a little mushily as the album goes on, and especially on the instrumental, untitled fifth track), but it’s certainly comforting to know that there’s someone out there besides Rufus (and his mother and aunt, the timeless duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle) who is evoking diverse musical bloodlines in a novel way.