Listening to The Swimming Hour is bound to give you a case of aural whiplash, the quick stylistic shifts between songs playing like a spin through an eclectic celestial jukebox.
The album isn’t impressive simply because of its scope. If that were the case, dozens of bands would be critically acclaimed for such gymnastics. Bird has crafted an album that jumps all over the map while maintaining a consistency of feel and quality that is stunning.
This is Bird’s most accessible album , coming on the heels of cult favorites Thrills (1998) and Oh! The Grandeur (1999). Those discs sounded like antiques, museum pieces injected with a bit of modern energy and verve. The songs were period pieces of jazz, blues and gypsy finger-picking. The success of The Swimming Hour can be found in the easy melding of those core influences with good old rock ‘n’ roll guitar riffs. “Two Way Action” a smoking opener, capably fuses those seemingly disparate styles, setting a tone for the album.
Bird, who fronts the group on vocals and violin, gives these tunes a focus with his often sweet singing and his mad sawing on the fiddle, its squeaks and stutters throughout the disc giving it an odd yet compelling thread.
Elsewhere, he soups up tunes with a fat beat, organ and guitar. like “How Indiscrete” is a slice of pure Memphis soul and “Satisfied” is a greasy garage rocker. These are the most accessible tunes here, and certainly the most energetic. But Bird fares equally well with quieter, more traditional fare.
“Why?” finds Bird channeling Billie Holiday through Jeff Buckley. The Buckley comparisons rear their head again on “Fatal Flower Garden”, a sweet ballad that would not be out of place on Buckley’s Grace.
But Bird isn’t the only angelic voice here. Nora O’Connor’s vocals are a welcome addition to the Bowl of Fire, leavening Bird’s occasionally atonal vocals with a sweet counterpoint. The two duet on the majestic “11:11”, an Eastern-flavored tune that breaks into a Beach Boy-like bridge (think ‘70s Beach Boys, not ‘60s) before coming back around to that violin and the slinky theme.
Other standouts include “Too Long”, a sweet, jazzy cover of the Mississippi Sheiks, and “Headsoak”, a quiet ballad the likes of which Elvis could have pounded into submission with bombast. Better, think of it in the hands of the late Eddy Arnold, who would have made this a country hit, though he likely would have dropped Bird’s lilting whistle solo.
Bird does falter. “Way Out West” is a bit tired, its “Rawhide”-like twang sounding like cut-rate Calexico, particularly coming after the smart hybrid of the songs before it.
And while the songs are often cute and clever, you don’t listen to Bowl of Fire for Bird’s lyrics. They’re more a way to carry the melody of songs that are built more around a groove and snappy instrumentation. But on tracks like “Core & Rind”, he unfurls a funky blues that equates his feelings with a fruit: “You don’t know my mind, you thought the core was the rind,” all cut by the kind of slinky organ solo that could have seeped out from under a garage door circa 1966.
Bird is known around Chicago as a journeyman of sorts, sitting in with various combos around town. He’s best known as a sometime Squirrel Nut Zipper. With The Swimming Hour, he makes his name as a front man.