Music

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast/Useless Creatures

Photo by Cameron Wittig

With the exception of a few standouts, Noble Beast finds Chicago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird inching toward the middle of the road. Luckily, the instrumental bonus disc Useless Animals picks up some of the slack.


Andrew Bird

Noble Beast

Label: Fat Possum
US Release Date: 2009-01-20
UK Release Date: 2009-02-02
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The violin has always played a central role in Andrew Bird's music. That's not surprising when you consider the fact that Bird first picked up a violin at the age of four. In the 30 or so years since then, however, he's managed to become proficient at playing a number of other instruments -- the guitar, the mandolin, the glockenspiel -- and has even mastered both the use of his own voice and the sound of his whistle. In retrospect, then, it should be equally unsurprising that on Armchair Apocrypha, Bird's 2007 full-length, the violin often took a back seat to other instruments. That's not to say that there was little violin on the album, but rather that Bird's virtuosic playing was showcased somewhat conservatively, thereby increasing its impact. This also allowed Bird to use a more varied pallet, bringing in more electric guitar, electronics, and keys than he had used in the past. The end result was a densely layered record full of grandiose, complex melodies, memorable hooks, and clever couplets.

If Armchair Apocrypha was Bird's reaction against his previous albums' string-heavy bent, then his latest full-length, Noble Beast, in turn serves as a reaction against Armchair Apocrypha. Gone are the sonically generous compositions, as well as much of the apocalyptic subject matter and black humor of that record. In their place you'll find breezy melodies, acoustic instrumentation, and songs that easily stretch out to six or seven minutes in length. On Noble Beast, you hear the sound of the maestro at his most relaxed, as he loosens his grip on the reins, allowing melodies to blossom at their own pace.

Unfortunately, this approach cuts both ways. Bird is a notoriously meticulous songwriter and composer (allegedly, he scrapped The Mysterious Production of Eggs twice before committing to tape a version that he liked), and on Noble Beast he makes an obvious attempt to confront those impulses. On the songs where this approach works, namely "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" and "Anonanimal", the results are stunning -- complex songs that sound organic, rather than fussed over. However, on the songs where it doesn't quite work the results are mixed; songs meander in search of an ending, melodies float in the air but never quite come into focus. As it turns out, most of the songs that make up Noble Beast fall into the latter category, making it the most uneven album in Bird's solo catalog by a wide margin.

Take, for example, the album's opening suite: "Oh No", "Masterswarm", and "Fitz & Dizzyspells". Bird has spent the last 15 years crafting an inimitable musical style by cobbling together pieces from various musical traditions, and indeed, all three of these songs are immediately recognizable as his creations. "Oh No" is the classically unhurried opening number (see "First Song" and "Sovay"), consisting of little more than a deliberately plucked acoustic guitar with pizzicato violin notes dotted about, handclaps, tambourine on the chorus to add levity, and a bit of whistling in the intro and outro. "Masterswarm" opens with a bit of folky fingerpicking, which eventually gives way to a series of handclaps and errant strums that sound almost like a slow Salsa. About midway through, we get a recurring clean guitar line that evokes Bends-era Radiohead, and at the end, a distant violin line. "Fitz & Dizzyspells" skews closer to the Armchair Apocrypha model, favoring layered (though mostly acoustic) guitar lines and propulsive drums, though there's a brief pizzicato coda at the one minute mark.

On paper, these songs probably sound like, well, Andrew Bird songs, but therein lies the problem. Listening to the album's first three tracks, you get the feeling that these songs could have been written at just about any point during Bird's career. There's little sense of progression from Armchair Apocrypha -- rather, these songs sound like throwbacks, like songs that might have appeared on The Mysterious Production of Eggs or earlier, though they lack the focus and catchy hooks of Bird's work from that era. While they're certainly pleasant enough, chances are you won't find yourself whistling along to these songs, even after repeated listens.

Luckily, "Effigy", the album's fourth track, fares far better. It opens by utilizing an old trick from Bird's live repertoire -- looped violin lines layered atop each other -- before moving on to the song's second movement, a folky, guitar-driven number with interludes of shuffling, jazzy percussion and fiddle that push the song forward. The choruses feature Bird harmonizing with a female backup singer to great effect, lending the song a wistful feel even as its lyrics find the narrator addressing someone intent on burning an effigy of him.

Speaking of lyrics, "Tenuousness" features some of the album's best, opening with the lines, "Tenuous at best / Is all he had to say when pressed / About the rest of it / The world, that is". From there it's headfirst into a classic Andrew Bird tongue twister: "From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and Hobishots / Who hang around the ports a lot / Uh-huh" (Seriously, is there not a competitive rhyming league for this guy to participate in?). The song spends its remaining three minutes slowly building up momentum until midway through, handclaps break out, their rhythmic clop-clop sounding more like horses' hooves than human hands.

"Not a Robot, But a Ghost", Noble Beast's answer to "Simple X", stands as both the album's most adventurous track and its most rewarding. Opening with a few mournful horns and a glitchy, IDM-influenced rhythm, it quickly dives into a sea of fragmented digital beats. "I run the numbers through the floor / Here's how it goes, I'll crack the code / I'll crack the code and end the war", Bird sings, longing for an age when, free of moral ambiguity, war was the exclusive enterprise of heroes and villains. Before long, he pulls out his mandolin and starts furiously strumming out a gypsy folk melody while a lilting violin line traces the contours of a classical Chinese tune. As the song progresses, Bird's voice becomes more desperate and pleading. Though it's entirely possible that he's talking about a relationship, it sounds as if he really believes he can end the war by simply cracking a mathematical code.

Unlike "Not a Robot, But a Ghost", "Anonanimal" sticks closer to the tried and true Andrew Bird formula, though it's an equally spellbinding piece. A series of pizzicato violin notes kicks things off, and before long cascading guitar arpeggios are giving chase. Bird lets things simmer for a while, finally allowing his voice to soar on the chorus. "We'll become less animal / None of those appendages / A non-animal / Anonanimal", he sings, inventing new terms and introducing literary ambiguities, as he is wont to do.

With the exception of the triumphant ballad "The Privateers", the album's final four tracks are much like its first three. Pleasant, slow dirges, these songs take their time unfolding, with few of their hooks catchy enough to grab the listener's attention and invite him or her deeper into the fold. "Souverian", especially, tends to drag; a seven-minute-plus track that sounds all the more overstuffed next to "The Privateers"' three minutes of bliss.

At 14 tracks and 54 minutes, Noble Beast can be an undertaking befitting of its name. Diehard Bird fans, however, will be excited to hear that a deluxe version of the album includes a second disc. Useless Creatures, an instrumental album, provides the listener with an additional 51 minutes of music, and luckily it's a far more adventurous, varied affair than the Beast that proceeded it.

Unsurprisingly, a number of the tracks on Useless Creatures find Bird making use of his loop station, but freed from the pressures of writing "real" songs, he turns up some interesting results. "You Woke Me Up" is quite theatrical in its delivery, its pizzicato notes creeping along at a steady pace as Bird passionately overlays violin melodies atop. "Nyatiti" sounds almost like a Shugo Tokumaru song, with its clattering, pots-and-pans rhythms and its playful, upbeat guitar melodies. "The Barn Tapes" finds Bird taking a stab at an ambient drone piece, using tape loops to stretch and bend violin notes into bizarre, atonal shapes. It's a mesmerizing song that at times recalls the textural aesthetic of My Bloody Valentine's "Touched". "Carrion Suite", a four-part suite that features Todd Sickafooose on the bass and Wilco's Glenn Kotche on drums, is by turns jazzy, operatic, and spare. Finally, on "Hot Math", Bird finds an outlet for his recent obsession with West African pop, and thankfully it sounds nothing like Vampire Weekend.

Were Noble Beast an album by another artist, it would be easier to forgive its flaws and indulgences. But given that this is Andrew Bird, from whom we've come to expect so much, it's hard not to feel disappointed. Whereas both The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha stand as exemplars of tight, focused pop songcraft, Noble Beast often feels wooly and bloated. To wit, in his review of The Mysterious Production of Eggs, PopMatters critic Peter Funk remarked that "Too often an artist's focus will wander when attempting such a varied, dense album, creating an uneven whole that jars the listener in swerving from excellence to mediocrity", though he rightly felt that The Mysterious Production of Eggs "stands firm from beginning to end." Michael Metivier echoed these sentiments in his review of Armchair Apocrypha, lauding Bird for "a career blessedly un-besmirched by unsavory choices or bum tracks." You see, it's not that Noble Beast is all that bad, its just that Bird has in the past been, consistently, just that good.

To be sure, there's some real meat to be found in Noble Beast's middle section, though getting there requires wading through multiple mediocre tracks that brush up against, if not exceed, the five-minute mark. Given the album's excessive runtime, Bird probably could have stood to cull a few of the weaker numbers, and with the additional room, might have reworked a few of the selections from Useless Creatures into experimental pop songs, thereby tempering his lack of risk taking on Noble Beast. By pursuing just such a hybrid approach, Bird could have reconciled his two halves: pop auteur and experimental composer, neurotic producer and easygoing improviser. Here's hoping that his next album is, indeed, just such a Noble Creature.

6

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

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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