Andrew Bird

Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...

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Continuing with the easy tone set by 2012's Break It Yourself and its stripped-down companion piece Hands of Glory, Andrew Bird retreats even further from the elegant pop orchestrations and looping of the decade prior, turning in his most ardently rural album to date. Things Are Great Here, Sort Of... marks yet another era of Bird's prolific and ever-evolving career. For one, it's an album of songs by long-tenured Chicago duo the Handsome Family, making this the first of his releases not to contain a single Andrew Bird song. Additionally, it marks a dedicated return to the live, single-mike recording technique he championed on his first two albums with the Bowl of Fire in the late '90s. Over the years, he has proven himself an inventive, boundary-pushing artist, but as a performer, his musicianship is truly something to behold and the performances he and his new band deliver here are strong and wonderfully nuanced. As a longtime friend, admirer, and occasional collaborator, Bird first tackled the Handsome Family's song "Don't Be Scared" (which receives an updated arrangement here as well) on 2003's Weather Systems, an album that marked his sea change into the mysterious, whistling pop maestro that would go on to international acclaim in the years to follow. The dark undercurrents and gothic beauty of Rennie and Brett Sparks' country and folk songs dovetail neatly with Bird's own darker leanings and his interpretations of their catalog are sparse and haunting, aided richly by his Hands of Glory band, which includes fellow songwriter Tift Merritt on guitar and vocals, double bassist Alan Hampton, pedal steel player Eric Heywood, and former Bowl of Fire drummer Kevin O'Donnell. Tracks like "Cathedral in the Dell" and "Tin Foiled" show a kind of laid-back warmth in their delivery, giving the effect of sitting inside the room with the band during a dress rehearsal. The lonesome "Giant of Illinois" and particularly "My Sister's Tiny Hands" offer a close-up look at Andrew Bird as a true folksinger, interpreting a type of Americana far less wordy and more deliberate than much of his own material, and he rises to the challenge. There is no studio manipulation, nor was there even a soundboard. Recorded with a single mike running into a tape machine in Bird's Los Angeles living room, the ten songs were knocked out in three days' time, apparently after the album's press release and album cover had already been made public. Whether this ultra-organic approach carries into future releases or is just a sort of mid-career palate cleanser, Things Are Great Here is a lovely collection and another unique release by one of the era's most distinctive artists.

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