With Weather Systems, violin virtuoso Andrew Bird took another conscious step to broaden his career when he moved out of Chicago to a farm in northwest Illinois, renovated the barn into a recording studio, and left the Rykodisc label for the small indie Grimsey (the album was later licensed to Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label) to create his most distinct recording to date. Only two of the Bowl of Fire members lend their abilities here (hence the billing of the record as a solo venture): longtime comrade Kevin O'Donnell, with his fluid and melodic drumming, adds to much of the recording, as does vocalist/guitarist Nora O'Connor, whose voice sounds like it was made to duet with Bird's. Contributions by Lambchop collaborator Mark Nevers on minimal guitar and production round out the cast on this moody and transfixing effort. The violin is the most prominent component by far; layer upon layer create beautifully complex string sections and saturate the soundscapes behind Bird's eloquent lyricism. This is nothing new, as evidenced on his astonishing predecessor, The Swimming Hour, but his approach to the instrument -- a great deal of pizzicato, strumming, and liberal use of effects -- suggests that Bird prepared not only for a unique advance on his songwriting, but also how he would pull off these songs in a live solo setting, which was partially documented on his live EP of 2002, Fingerlings. An excellent display of this layering approach is the truly progressive title track -- one of the greatest moments in Bird's career. The entire track is assembled solely with multi-tracked violins fluttering in and out, one fingerpicked almost like a banjo roll, and at the three-and-three-quarters-minute mark, an octave pedal is applied to the pizzicato violin, pitching the notes down two octaves to provide a bassline underneath a vivid, cinematic, delicate, yet broad and sweeping choir of violins and whistling. Not to get too far ahead; the title track is not the first example of Bird's aptitude for whistling on Weather Systems, or indeed for his entire catalog, but this recording (his fourth full-length) is the first to showcase his ability to do so, adding another dynamic to the talented vocalist. In fact, the opening track, aptly titled "First Song," begins with a whistled melody and O'Connor's guitar accompaniment, then breaks into a comfortable waltz lyrically borrowing from and based on the Galway Kinnell poem of the same title. The journey through the rest of Weather Systems is just as relaxed, passing through Bird's most sinister composition, "I," with its slightly atonal and creepy, high violins; the pop gem "Lull," guided by O'Donnell's shuffling drums and rhythmic vocal play by Bird and O'Connor; and an inspired take on the Handsome Family's "Don't Be Scared," which serves as the crescendo of the album. In the end, Weather Systems is the kind of perfection any number of artists strive for; the performance is passionate, lucid, and engaging, and the recording has depth and warm ambience to the point that the room itself becomes an instrument (one can hear the creaking of the floorboards under Bird's feet on the title track). The album in its entirety achieves a rarity in pop music where the production, performance, and sincerity -- with arrangements which never sound forced -- meet the quality of the songwriting, resulting in a timeless effort where the sum is greater than its parts.
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AllMusic Review by Gregory McIntosh