Jan 212009
Authors: Nick Scheidies

After spending the last decade floating around in the oblivion that is indie-rock obscurity, a string of increasingly successful albums (“The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha”) have left Andrew Bird poised on the verge of breaking into the mainstream.

But you wouldn’t know it if you listened to his off-beat new album, “Noble Beast.”

The first track, “Oh No,” begins with 20 seconds of pensive violin before bursting into Bird’s trademark surrealist lyrical opacity:/ “In the salsify mains of what was thought but unsaid / All the calcified ar were doing the math.”

Aside from having a vocabulary that could make Noah Webster blush (salsify (n): a purple-flowered plant), Andrew Bird is a classically trained violinist who dabbles in mandolin, guitar and the unfortunately-named glockenspiel. Oh, and he also has a penchant for whistling.

Quite frankly, this man couldn’t record a disc of “mainstream” rock if he tried.

Nevertheless — and despite spanning four centuries of art rock, gypsy folk and chamber-music in four minutes — “Oh No” has an undeniable pop hook./

And the rest of “Noble Beast” happily follows suit.

Take the clap-and-whistle-along refrain of “Fitz and the Dizzyspells.”/ Or the winning “Not a Robot but a Ghost” — which percolates with scattershot percussion and ominous electric guitar until Bird’s weary, urgent voice emerges, crying “I crack the codes that wins the war.”/

Through it all, Bird’s language never ceases to captivate, whether babbling like an underwater Dr. Seuss on “Anonanimal” (“See a sea anemone”) or ranting like an ancient history professor on “Tenuousness” (“Proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and Hobishots.”)

The esoteric diction can be more than a tad alienating, but it makes songs like “Souverian” that offer glimpses of a more intimate, less verbose Bird all the more poignant.

Furthermore, Bird’s wordiness is more than mere wordplay./When he weaves together the seemingly disparate worlds of insurance salesmen and sailors on “Privateers,” it isn’t just strange, but strangely enlightening.

Unfortunately, even when “Noble Beast” is at its best, something is lacking.

“Nomenclature,” for instance, triumphantly simmers with drum rolls and mounting feedback only to boil over into nothing in particular./ “Masterswarm” promises greatness but fizzles when it needs to explode. It’s sort of like a good joke that’s been robbed of its punch-line:/ “Noble Beast” is all conflict, no resolution.

Admittedly, “Noble Beast” can be challenging, but it’s even more rewarding./

These rich, quirky tunes won’t likely boost Andrew Bird to the top of radio playlists, but at the very least they ought to boost your vocabulary.

Staff writer Nick Scheidies can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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