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Tag: andrew bird

Album Review: Lo-Fang – Blue Film [4AD]

Lo-Fang, aka Matthew Hemerlein, is a very talented guy. His early singles proved as much, showing off a diverse range of styles and instruments, all of which he played himself. Throw in some pretty catchy choruses, and you’ve got all the makings of a superstar. At least that’s what it looks like on paper. He may well rise above the fray and build an audience from the ground up, and having teen wunderkind Lorde in his corner to take him out on tour will undoubtedly help push things in the right direction. What’s unfortunate however is how Hemerlein’s debut album Blue Film turns a promising singer-songwriter and composer into a small disappointment. Turns out when you focus on only one or two aspects of your songs, there are other pieces that suffer.

If Blue Film was an entirely instrumental record, it would have turned out pretty great, what with the very Andrew Bird-like mixture of guitars, violins and synths. That’s the arena where Hemerlein really proves his worth as a musician. The other half of that includes vocals and lyrics, which is where this album really takes a turn for the worse. There are clunky and awkward lines in virtually every single song, and those mouthfuls are akin to someone trying to forcefully connect two puzzle pieces together that do not fit. “I never figured out how to / Unfold your paper cranes / Origami agony,” are kind of strange and ultimately meaningless lines from album opener “Look Away,” though the hook and gorgeous composition do a great job of averting total disaster there. While the nearly seven minutes of “#88” makes it a touch too long to be an official single, it’s one of the few tracks released in advance of the record that does a fantastic job of showing off Hemerlein’s musical diversity and influences. Unforunately it too suffers from a few lines that might as well have been pulled from the book of most commonly used lyrics.

It stands to reason that even the blandest of lyrics can be made better or more colorful by a clear emotional investment from the person singing them. No matter what the subject matter of a song, from reflections on the world around you to the morality of cheating on your significant other to trying to be a better person, it seems like Hemerlein treats everything with a calm and nearly apathetic tone of voice. Even just a hint of genuine passion or the stretching of his vocal range from time to time could have given some extra life to songs that desperately needed it. Then there’s the matter of the two covers on Blue Film, both of which seem like ill-advised choices. The first is “Boris,” from the female duo BOY, which is a very dark song about sexual harassment in the music industry. These women are singing about their experience, but in Hemerlein’s hands the perspective shifts to the creepy guy offering them Codeine. If covering “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease seems like a bad idea for an artist who largely deals with orchestral pop, you’d be correct. Hemerlein slows the tempo down to a delicately composed crawl, which changes the mood from upbeat and fun to downright desperate. It’s fits in perfectly with the rest of the album for that very reason, but it begs the question of why he felt the need to do it in the first place.

Prior to signing with 4AD, Hemerlein was planning to release Blue Film as a mixtape. As most mixtapes are, it probably would have been free. When the label heard what he had put together, they wanted to release it as Hemerlein’s debut album. Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have waited for the next batch of songs before trying to provide a proper introduction to Lo-Fang. Surely whatever he does next will be better than this.

Buy Blue Film from 4AD [or iTunes]

Set List: Wilco at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark [Geneva, IL; 7/8/12]

I’ve reviewed a few Wilco shows before, and I’m sure I’ll review a Wilco show again. Even though I was there, I won’t be reviewing this one. It was as good as almost every other Wilco show I’ve seen, even though I didn’t fully appreciate the sound system in the ballpark. Nels Cline is still killing it with those guitar solos, Jeff Tweedy’s vocals are sharp as ever, and there were some nice set list surprises at this show. That’s all I’m going to say about it. Here’s the full set list:

Set List
Dawned On Me
War On War
I Might
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Box Full of Letters
Handshake Drugs
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Impossible Germany
Born Alone
Not For the Season (aka Laminated Cat)
Side With The Seeds
Say You Miss Me
Jesus Etc. (with Andrew Bird)
Hate It Here
Whole Love
I’m Always in Love
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Via Chicago
Art of Almost
Standing O
A Shot in the Arm
California Stars (with Andrew Bird)
The Late Greats
Hoodoo Voodoo

Album Review: Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [Mom + Pop/Bella Union]

Andrew Bird hasn’t changed. At least not on the surface. If you’ve spent at least a little bit of time with any of his last couple albums, you pretty much know what to expect from the guy and the genuine surprise comes from the fact that he does it so damn well. Every arrangement is delicate, effortlessly and intricately blending ukulele, acoustic guitar, violin both played and plucked, staid percussion and that unmistakable whistle. The combinations may vary, and sometimes there’s an electric guitar or two, but the end product is often beautiful, naturalistic and anchored by Bird’s lilting vocals. His sonic adventures show up less on his albums and more in his extracurricular activities, which include a collaborative art installation piece called Sonic Arboretum and heavy work on the soundtrack to the indie film Norman. He’s also the sort of guy that is busy all the time, and when he’s not writing and recording music or preparing some art project he’s typically touring. Last year a documentary called Andrew Bird: Fever Year made its way around film festivals. It captured the final months of Bird’s extremely long 2010 tour in support of his last album Noble Beast and the physical/mental toll it took on him. He had fevers every single day and wound up on crutches due to an on-stage injury. He had worked so hard his body was headed for a full breakdown. It seems fitting then that he took time off in early 2011, settled down in New York, and became a father for the first time. Yet despite his rather massive life changes, his music still comes from the same place. Last fall Bird gathered up his core band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Mike Lewis and returned to the Western Illinois barn where they recorded bits of the last couple long players in preparation for the next one. Break It Yourself is the result, an unflinching yet instantly familiar collection of songs that seeks to impress less with innovation and more with pure songcraft.

Though he’s still working with the same tools and environment as before, Bird tried something a little different when putting together songs for Break It Yourself. Instead of entering his home studio with a bunch of songs that just needed to be set to tape, he instead recorded a series of jam sessions with the band in the hopes something great would emerge. The lack of preparation brought a looseness to much of the album that’s a bit more refreshing than some of the more staid and perfectionist moments on his last couple efforts. Nowhere else will you get such a sprightly and inspired song like “Danse Carribe”, which builds into a blissful African rhythm set against Bird playing his violin with a vigor more reserved for the time the Devil went down to Georgia. There’s something very DeVotchKa-esque about it too, though that may have more to do with Bird’s vocals taking on Nick Urata’s familiar emotional yearn. Almost equally compelling is the shuffle of “Near Death Experience Experience”, the subtle pinpricks of electric guitar causing slight ripples in the track’s otherwise smooth demeanor, like a drop of water falling into a placid lake. A similar punchiness comes through on the bridge to “Give It Away”, which sounds like a slice of an entirely different song before a switch is flipped and it regains its composure in the final 90 seconds. Quick changes like that or protracted intros to songs like “Desperation Breeds” and “Hole in the Ocean Floor” serve well at keeping fans on their toes by breaking with expectation in engaging ways.

Yet there’s also a fair bit of Break It Yourself that stays tried and true to the Andrew Bird way of doing things. The second half of the album feels remarkably familiar, and not necessarily in a good way. St. Vincent makes a positively lovely appearance on “Lusitania”, though it’s a shame she didn’t bring her favorite guitar along for the ride because everything else about the song feels whitewashed and plain. “Orpheo Looks Back” begins with so much promise and energy before running out of steam halfway through. It only fares a little better than “Sifters” and “Fatal Shore”, two languid numbers that have nothing to offer except for their relatively smart lyrical content. If those don’t completely put you to sleep, there’s a singular late album surprise that turns out to be one of the finest pieces of music Bird has ever composed. “Hole in the Ocean Floor” measures itself out across 8+ minutes that may be serene, but are jaw-droppingly beautiful and exquisitely measured. The violins interweave with one another, the ukulele is the gooey center of the track, and that impressive whistle knows just the right moments to make its presence felt. There are barely any vocals, but there’s little need for them given so much is said with the track’s mournful tone anyways. A song like this goes a long way towards making an artistic statement beyond mere convention, and in some ways makes you wish Bird had used the song as a template for the entire album. Instead, it shows up at the end, followed only by the 3 minute instrumental “Belles”, which functions more as time to meditate on the track that came before it rather than something important or essential.

Clocking in at just about an hour, Break It Yourself can feel just a little overlong and downright boring at times. Bird could have cut a couple of songs on the second half of the album and it would have made for a much tighter and brighter experience. Of course when your lyrics are about the decline in bee population (“Desperation Breeds”), death (“Near Death Experience Experience”) and failed relationships (“Give It Away”), even a “brighter” experience may not be as sunny as you’d hoped. Bird has never been the most positive and upbeat songwriter anyways, and has six other solo efforts to prove it. He does continue to grow as a musician and lyricist after all that time, and there’s plenty of evidence on this new record that will grab and hold your attention out of interest for where it will head next. His niche is firmly established and not easily copied which is part of the draw, but it’s his drive to explore those sounds and how they’re used through art and film that makes him the sort of artist you root for even if he comes up short on occasion. Break It Yourself may not be the evolutionary breakthrough Andrew Bird undoubtedly hoped it would be, but its littered with a host of excellent moments and the implied promise that he won’t stop pushing himself so long as we keep listening with eager ears.

Andrew Bird – Eyeoneye

Buy Break It Yourself from Amazon

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