Only a select few artists have had the privilege of releasing records on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label. There’s the sometime collaborator Utah Phillips, like-minded folkie Hammell on Trial, Brazilian psych-ster Arto Lindsay, the queercore of Bitch and Animal and, the best of them all, theatrical singer-songwriter Andrew Bird. His hauntingly spare folk album Weather Systems, his fourth full-length, was the first to be picked up by the Babe, prompting a new incarnation of the Chicago songwriter, as it was his first album not to credit Bowl of Fire, his band of the first three albums. Dark and gentle, it was a new approach for Bird, though the songwriting was unmistakably his. The whistling, voice and, of course, violin, were all exactly as he had left them after he parted ways with Rykodisc.
Now that Bird is finding a more long-term home at Righteous Babe, his creative spark has ignited toward the more boisterous and flamboyant, as his new effort, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, finds him sharing more sonic similarities to Ed Harcourt and Rufus Wainwright than Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. Ranging from gentle ballads to fiery rockers, Bird’s latest swings the pendulum wide, covering just about everything in-between.
After an instrumental with some kind of squiggly thing for a name, the album begins properly with “Sovay,” a waltzy tune that immediately displays Bird’s knack for clever wordplay:
“I was getting ready to be a threat/
I was getting set for my/
The Kind where no one dies/
No one looks too surprised/
Then you realize/
You’re riding on the par-success/
Of a heavy-handed metaphor”
Bird’s zany fun continues in “Fake Palindromes,” a hard rockin’ (and heavy on the violin) tune that rhymes “formaldehyde” with “fratricide.” Oh my! “Banking on a Myth,” a few songs further in, sees Bird mixing his cabaret-folk with Morricone in a cool, Southwestern-sounding number that switches back to the classic Bird sound at the chorus. Nothing matches the epic, orchestral subtlety (yeah, you heard me) of “Opposite Day.” With multi-tracked vocals, gently plucked guitar and creeping strings, it’s one of the most magnificent songs I’ve ever heard. No exaggeration needed. Though, “Skin Is, My,” a re-working of one of the songs on Weather Systems is a fiery little number with a tune that won’t leave your head once it sets up camp there.
One interesting by-product of Bird’s switch to Righteous Babe is an increase in the quality of his album art. The inner sleeve to Mysterious Production features little cartoon drawings above the lyrics to each song, like a guy with an upside-down head on “Opposite Day,” a faded hand on “Skin Is, My” and flowers growing on zeroes and ones on “Masterfade.” Consult the lyrics and these will make more sense.
Though Righteous Babe may not have the budget of, say, Warner Bros., it’s likely that they’ll be able to present Bird to a new audience, one that will revel in his whimsical musical and lyrical delights. How nice that would be, especially following the release of Eggs. It’s, without a doubt, the best album of his career.
Rufus Wainwright – Want One
Jolie Holland – Escondida
Jon Brion – Meaningless
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.