Judging by his output over the past few years, listeners might begin to believe that Andrew Bird is a recording machine. With at least one studio or live release offered in almost every year for a decade, it would seem as if the seasoned string master never strays too far from his recording equipment. Bird’s latest, Hands of Glory is a sequel of sorts to this year’s highly regarded Break It Yourself. This EP finds Bird and a full band reinterpreting songs from Break It Yourself as well as tackling classic country songs recorded live around a single microphone. The calculated noise of Bird’s earlier work is all here for the taking. Singing saws, gently strummed guitars, and tinny percussion make Hands of Glory an exceptionally pleasant listen throughout.
The purity of recording live around a single microphone is clearly the biggest draw on Hands of Glory. With all of the studio trickery available these days, it’s beyond impressive to consider how Bird and his sound engineers could do so much with so little technology. Although Bird is certainly not the only musician to use anachronistic recording techniques nowadays, it’s refreshing to consider how much advancement can be had in looking backwards for a moment.
“Railroad Bill”, a traditional old timey country tune, is a treat. In addition to the jug-band percussion, Bird’s singing and violin solos are perfectly matched to the song (and have a listen to the end of the song – the band’s yelps of approval are indicators that they know when a good take has been laid down on tape). Even if the song is more straight-forward than anything Bird has done previously, it’s as rewarding as anything else in his massive catalogue.
“If I Needed You”, a crack at the classic Townes Van Zandt song, shows an impressive expansion of Bird’s generic palate. Here, Bird finds himself bringing in other vocalists to harmonize with him as he gracefully plucks the strings in a more countrified fashion. Even in the midst of the Townes Van Zandt renaissance that many artists are currently celebrating, Bird’s work here is superior to the other covers offered on the release (“Spirograph” by Alpha Consumer and “When That Helicopter Comes” by The Handsome Family). The harmonized a capella vocals at the end of the song give it more than a little gospel flavor (another innovation for Bird).
“Orpheo”, one of Bird’s earlier offerings from Break It Yourself is another gem. Although the song has very little flash in the way of solos or complex instrumentation, the songs lyrics remind listeners of the madness that can sometimes be found in love. The gentle guitar playing and Bird’s soothing voice are spotlighted beautifully here and even after one listen, the song warrants a careful investigation of the rest of the EP.
“The county remains dry”, Bird sings on the chorus of “Something Biblical”, and here again we’re taken to another century where this song is perhaps more fitting. Although listeners are likely more used to the cerebral lyrical musings from Bird, the song is a chance to convince his fanbase that he’s capable of waxing old timey with fun metaphors about liquor and sin.
“Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses”, the beautiful instrumental track in excess of nine minutes, closes Hands of Glory. With Bird’s violin noodling up front, the band gets comfortable making ambient noise for their leader to ride an erratic (but melodic) wave that winds up making an excellent bookend to the record’s opener, “Three White Horses”.
Hands of Glory might not stand alone as a release without the context provided by Break It Yourself, but it nevertheless serves as a testament to how capable and creative Bird can be when he’s dialed in.