Music

Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird is one of the great pop visionaries of the past decade, but, for the second album in a row, it sounds like he's still trying to figure out his next step.


Andrew Bird

Break It Yourself

US Release: 2012-03-06
UK Release: 2012-03-05
Label: Mom + Pop
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When last we heard a proper record from Andrew Bird on 2008's Noble Beast, he was in a strange place. Ever on the eccentric, clever edge of modern pop music, Bird sounded, well, normal, even settled. His heavily orchestrated songs all of a sudden felt too controlled, too tight and, as a result, lacked the snap of songs from Armchair Apocrypha or The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Perhaps the album was an end point, a moment where we (and Bird) realized he'd taken that approach as far as it could go. Break It Yourself, his new record, seeks to right the ship by taking a new approach. These recordings are as on the spot as Bird dares to get. Bird brought in a group of trusted musicians and basically ran tape while they rehearsed, figuring out the songs as a group with Bird giving the others a chance to find their parts on their own without too much direction from him. If the results still sound for all the world like the orchestral pop we've heard from Bird before, it is still certainly the loosest permutation of that sound.

These songs don't feel constructed so much as they seem lived in, and when the performance matches up with the cleverness and tunefulness of these songs, that is when the record is at its most compelling. "Desperation Breeds … " would be a strong entry in Bird's discography either way, but what surprises about it is how it takes its time getting going, how the drums snap and shuffle their way into the groove, how a violin plucks quietly to life, how Bird's own voice starts faint and then asserts itself. Elsewhere in the record, this live approach makes for striking flourishes, like the smoldering violin fills on "Danse Caribe" or the otherworldly fuzz of organ and guitar on "Near Death Experience Experience" coupled with the very human and sweet backing vocals.

With these flourishes Bird himself seems to have found new life, particularly in the middle of the album where the players give Bird a shot in the arm. "Give It Away" is as catchy a song as Bird has written, but it also plays off-kilter plucked violin over more keening strings to a strange but brilliant effect, and the song shifts from straight-on verse and chorus to shuffling breakdowns seamlessly, the changes sound almost on a whim. "Eyeoneye" is the most muscled, power-pop moment on the record, and its finest song, so that when Bird claims that – if no one will break your heart, "you've got to break it yourself" – you feel him doing the same. Not romanticizing heartbreak, mind you, but rather knocking down new barriers to get to true yet joyful feeling. This string of tunes – along with "Danse Caribe" and "Near Death Experience Experience" – anchor a lively middle of the record, that confirms that perhaps Bird and these players are, as he claims, "[dancing] like cancer survivors" shaking off the worry and the rust and delivering some solid tunes.

In the end, though, this middle of the record feels like an island with an all-too-calm sea of sounds around it. If these bring out the best in this live approach, much of the rest of the record makes this live experimentation feel slack. The bulk of the record chugs at mid-tempo, and its hour-long run time starts to drag once "Near Death Experience Experience" fades out. A song like "Sifters", a bare and quiet guitar number, might sound fine on its own, but its bookended by "Orpheo Looks Back" – which starts as a lively barn-stomper before its wandering melodies quickly run out of steam – and the five-minute "Fatal Shore", which is so languid it nearly slips into a torpor even Bird's whistling can't save. "Hole in the Ocean Floor", the album’s eight-minute penultimate track, encapsulates most clearly the rut this album falls into. It has an extended orchestral intro, spacious and swaying, that is perfectly lovely on its own. However, when Bird starts singing and tries to shift it into an epic song – mostly with Bird's voice and swells of strings – it feels huge and formless. The song never quite asserts itself so instead of marveling at the size and space of it, you start to wonder – pretty early on – where it's going.

And so it is with Break It Yourself, an album with a solid first half, that restores the energy and vitality of Bird's musical vision, and then slowly and steadily leaches that energy back out of it. What feels at first like true collaboration turns into something closer to trudging indulgence. The best parts of this record recall Bird at his finest, tweaking his sound just enough to freshen it up, but unfortunately they're surrounded by too many songs that end up as pleasant background music. Andrew Bird is one of the great musical visionaries of the past decade, but on Break It Yourself – and for the second album in a row – it sounds like he's still trying to figure out his next step.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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