Recorded while wading up to his ankles in the Los Angeles River, Echolocations: River is the second in Andrew Bird's series of instrumental works inspired by and captured amid the natural world. The Echolocations series was introduced in 2015 with Canyon, a mystical seven-piece violin suite that utilized the massive natural reverberations of Utah's Coyote Gulch canyons. Like Canyon, River is also a site-specific work, featuring Bird serenading the areas underneath and around the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, the city the former Chicagoan now calls home. Throughout his career, Bird has maintained a remarkably consistent output, peppering his primary pop-oriented releases with more experimental fare and passion projects like this one. Following 2016's excellent Are You Serious, one of the most accessible LPs he's made in years, he again ditches the guitar, glockenspiel, and pitch-perfect whistling to focus on his primary instrument, the violin. River opens with "The Cormorants," one of five tracks appropriately named after birds, nodding both to his surname and the local inhabitants of this stretch of water. The hushed white noise of running water and distant traffic paints the backdrop as Bird patrols the space, slowly building up steam for "Ellipses," a heavily layered showstopper that melds acoustic improvisation with his trademark looped orchestrations. Darkly enchanting, he trills playfully against shifting octave-tweaked bass lines while underneath, what sounds like manipulated splashing keeps a mysterious rhythm. "Gypsy Moth" is classic Bird, building on a minimalist phrase that shifts fluidly with each repeated measure over its six and a half minutes. The sanguine pizzicato-led "Down Under the Hyperion Bridge" is as close as River comes to pop melodicism -- in spite of its nine-minute length -- and also marks the only appearance of Bird's voice as he sings wordlessly along to the lead melody. Like its Utah-made predecessor, Echolocations: River is a wholly unique experience, fusing ambient improvisations with chamber music and environmental soundscapes. It's also quite refreshing to hear Bird lean so easily into the role of violinist/composer with no other instrumentation or words to distract.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger