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Music on Trial: Andrew Bird strings together an album of covers

Is it just me, or do you hear whistling and singing? A bird? Close! Andrew Bird, violinist, whistler and singer-songwriter released his newest album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of . . . this past June. The album’s sound hints at Bird’s earlier work with his floaty voice and lively violin, reminiscent of popular albums including The Mysterious Production of Eggs 2005 and Noble Beast 2009. However, as opposed to a majority of Bird’s other work, this album does not feature his original music or lyrics.

The 10 tracks on this new album are Bird’s covers of a selection of songs by the country-bluegrass band The Handsome Family, a group formed in Chicago in 1993 by husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks. Bird, too, began his music career in his hometown of Chicago, where he released his first full album, Music of Hair, in 1996. Because of the overlap in musical styles and shared location, The Handsome Family and Andrew Bird have influenced each other’s work and helped one another continue to develop their respective voices throughout the years.

Bird’s work is extensive, with more than five main albums and a multitude of EPs. The beginning of this musical timeline, as mentioned, is Music of Hair, which mainly focuses on Bird’s violin skills with minimal use of lyrics.

However, his lyrics are now a distinguishing element of his style. Lines including “wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil,” “there will be snacks” and poetic tongue-twisters like “I see a sea anemone” all play a part in Bird’s whimsical, playful and emotive musicality.

A number of EPs dubbed Fingerlings have also been released by Bird over the years. These are a bit like artist sketches – a way for Bird to expose songs to the public that might not be completely prepared or polished, but still serve as a method for practicing and creating fresh music to add to his portfolio.

“You get a lot of songs that might otherwise never see the light of day. Some of the more questionable subject matter that I write for my own entertainment and that might threaten to undermine my integrity as a songwriter,” Bird said of these albums.

Though these are just a few examples of the music Bird has been writing and releasing on his own for 18 years, Things Are Really Great takes a different turn, drawing on the inspiration of The Handsome Family in order to give Bird a fresh perspective as well as a chance to focus on other things and people in his life outside of writing completely original music.

In a recent interview, Bird comments that he couldn’t write his own music at this point in his life because it would distract him too much. He needed to delve into somebody else’s work in his own way to keep practicing certain aspects of songwriting while maintaining the ability to remain present for the people in his life who needed him. Bird does go on to say that after finishing this album, he is ready to write again and has already started more songs.

At a short 35 minutes, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of . . . is easy to listen to in full and gives listeners a taste of Bird’s style, even through another band’s lyrics and music.

Looking for more? The variety and development of Bird’s work offers many enjoyable tunes, whether it is the pure quality of his instrumental violin skills in Music of Hair, the free-flowing, interpretive “Anonanimal” from Noble Beast 2009, the mellow and steady “Tables and Chairs” from The Mysterious Production of Eggs 2005, or the energetic, moving “Pulaski at Night” from I Want to See Pulaski at Night 2013.

Check out these songs and see where they lead you. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself whistling along the way.

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