Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...

With his latest release, Andrew Bird pays homage to the Handsome Family in that achingly beautiful way only he can.

Andrew Bird

Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of

Label: Wegawam
US Release Date: 2014-06-10
UK Release Date: 2014-06-23

Indelibly linked through their shared time in Chicago during the mid-to late- '90s and early '00s, Andrew Bird and the Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks have a long history together. There’s a sense of mutual admiration expressed by each in concert, often affectionately recalling their time spent together in the Windy City. Bird made his first Handsome Family-related appearance on the duo’s 2000 release In the Air, contributing violin on three tracks. He’s since gone on to cover their song “The Giant of Illinois” both regularly in concert and for the Dark Was the Night compilation in 2009, all the while extolling the band’s virtues and spreading the good word.

While neither are necessarily household names, Bird’s musical and pop cultural stature is certainly greater than that of the Handsome Family’s on a broader scale and with each performance in which he takes on a Handsome Family number, their respective audiences hopefully grow. His affection and appreciation of and for the group is evident in the almost reverential love and care with which he performs the criminally overlooked duo’s solid catalog of gothic country, murder ballads and Americana.

It’s quite fitting then that Bird would decide to tackle an entire album of Handsome Family covers, bringing to light one of the darker bodies of work in contemporary American music. With Rennie crafting the literate, at times darkly funny lyrics and Brett delivering them in a monotone baritone that often resembles a foghorn, the Handsome Family’s living room-recorded albums are not always for everyone. From their sparse arrangements to the sometimes thin sounding production, listeners generally come for the songs more than the sounds being presented. Besides, full immersion in the Handsome Family requires attendance at one of the pair’s concerts wherein they often go off on bizarre asides, sharing amusing anecdotes and generally acting like an old married couple on stage in between, and occasionally during, songs.

With Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, Bird reimagines ten Handsome Family songs, recreating them in his own, often more classical-leaning image. Gone are the Sparks’ rougher edges, replaced by an elegance and reverence that elevates these very live-sounding, intimate performances and simultaneously reshapes the lyrical context. With Bird’s choir-boy tenor, previously dark lyrics delivered in Brett’s low rumble suddenly take on a new light; no longer earth-bound, they scale swirling heights that give each new life, imbuing them with a new sense of purpose, a beauty within which it is easy to get lost.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the tracks here come from albums released during their respective times in Chicago, with three form the aforementioned In the Air (“So Much Wine”, “The Sad Milkman” and “Don’t Be Scared”), two from their critically adored 1998 breakthrough release Through the Trees (“The Giant of Illinois” and “My Sister’s Tiny Hands”) and one from 1996’s Milk and Scissors (“Drunk By Noon”). Eschewing note-for-note recreations, Bird uses the basic idea of each song as a base upon which to build lovingly altered melodies with subtle changes to chord progressions that enhance the emotional weight of each and adding a lyrical melodicism often lacking in the originals’ utilitarian renderings.

On “So Much Wine” (here re-titled “So Much Wine Merry Christmas”), Bird takes a minor key approach to the original’s major key progression that, when the song opens up, makes the sentiments expressed and tale of Christmas-morning domestic violence all the sadder, perfectly complimented by vocal work from his Hands of Glory backing group featuring Tift Merritt, Alan Hampton (bass), Eric Heywood (pedal steel), and Kevin O’Donnell (drums). His slower take makes an already impossibly sad, reflective song all the more so when given a more balladic treatment that shrugs off the original’s heavy two and four in favor of a subtler, more delicate approach.

“The Sad Milkman”, one of the duo’s better known songs and often covered in concert by Bird, simply doesn’t compare to the original’s devastating beauty. Of the songs here, it is one of the few better suited to Brett’s voice than Andrew’s. By no means bad, it simply feels as though something is missing and overall does not possess quite the same gravity as when conveyed by Sparks. Bird’s almost conversational recitation of the lyrics doesn’t help matters much either, lending an almost off-hand approach to one of the more lyrically compelling songs in the Handsome Family catalog.

Album closer “Far From Any Road (By My Hand)” most resembles Bird’s current live performances with the violin doubling at times as a mandolin before switching back to bowed playing. Rennie’s exceptional, devastating lyrics, the impact of which is sometimes lost due to Brett’s often idiosyncratic delivery, are presented here with a clarity that helps illuminate their poetic quality. Bird’s hauntingly ethereal bowed overtones circle high above the sparse arrangement’s brushed snare, spare guitar and plucked bass, adding to the overall eeriness and beauty conveyed by the song in its basest form.

Above all, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… serves as a musical love letter to friends and inspirations; exceptional in execution, beautiful in its haunting simplicity. If there is any justice, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… will open the door for further exploration by equally sympathetic artists to one of the best contemporary American songbooks out there.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.