Sit your sweet asses down, kids. It's educatin' time
Once, ages and ages ago, I was a record store monkey for one of them giant chains you always hear about in the news and, perhaps, have patronized from time to time. I was bright eyed and eager to shuffle records with no complaints and questions. Yes, indeed, in my spare time I would float down the aisles and check to make sure all the records were in place, settled down in their naps until an average consumer -- such as yourself or, say, your mother -- snatched it up in their hot little hands and layed down some hard earned cash for the sucker. On one such occasion, I was combing through the Jazz / New Swing (oh, yes, my friends, this was in the twilight days of the Swing / Jump Blues craze of the mid to late 1990's) and I found, filed under S for Squirrel Nut Zippers something that was obviously out of place: Thrills by Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. As I quickly scanned the record cover, synaptic connections were made: many of the Zippers had starring roles on this man's record. But who was he? Why was he filed here and not tucked neatly in Pop / Rock between Bad Company and Boy George? Intrigued, I purchased the record at the end of my shift.
When I got home, I treated my ears to this mystery. I quickly realized that Mr. Bird was, indeed, the man responsible for the incredible and intricate violin work on the Zippers' record Perennial Favorites, released earlier that year. Suddenly I was delighted that he had his own band because that meant I'd be hearing more of his luscious violin in the years to come.
Flash forward to later in my career at the store. I am cynical and tired of you, the money-burning, Britney-Spears-buying, Third-Eye-Blind listening customer, and trying my damnedest to find a record to play in store that won't drive me to spend my entire shift in the countout room, pulling my hair and clawing out my eyes. Hiding away in the jazz room, I once again find poor Mr. Bird misfiled under Squirrel Nut Zippers, except it's a different record, and one with a cover designed by Chris Ware, no less! I eagerly run out into the main room and expose my poor co-workers and the record purchasing public to Oh! The Grandeur and goddamn if it wasn't but the sweetest sound my ears ever did hear. It was akin to finding a stack of unlabeled '78s in an antique store and playing them on a rickety old grammophone and hearing naught but the holy string section of God Himself telling you to kick up your heels and enjoy life a bit. I don't know how many times I played that record that night, silently contemplating the pure raw talent of the entire Bowl of Fire and ignoring my co-workers' desperate pleas to, for the love of God, play something else.
It was a while before I heard from Mr. Bird or his Bowl of Fire, long after I had quit the record store racket and moved across the country. By pure luck indeed I noticed that he was playing at the Middle East in Cambridge and you know the devil himself would have to put coals in my britches and sit me down in a kerosene easy chair to prevent me from attending said performance.
And what a show it was, children. Andrew Bird doesn't just play violin: he murders it. His pizzicato is nigh perfect. His fingers move along the fretboard with the ferocity of a hurricane and, after he's finished ripping the hairs from his bow into a disconnected frenzy, the man will pick his instrument up and strum it with audacity and alacrity. The man is a well-dressed demon on the stage, his awkward and gauntly frame bending at the waist so that he might croon his dark lyrics into the microphone.
"But what of the rest of the Bowl of Fire?" I hear you asking. "Surely Mister Bird does not act alone! Doesn't his band have a glorious synergy that allows it to hammer out such complex tunes with indefatigable precision?" Well, my friends, the answer is, of course, yes. Colin Bunn wrangled a mighty rhythm on the guitar, Josh Hirsch belted out quite the groove from his upright bass, but the secret star of the show was Mister Kevin O'Donnell, a drummer with no equal on either this or the other side of the Big Muddy.
The songs the band was playing, though, seemed to be changing, moving into a more flush, pop driven stance, and the new tunes? Gosh. Beautiful, but not the archaic and quirky violin jazz that I'd become accustomed to. I hoped that these changes did not signify dark times ahead that would extinguish my most loved Bowl of Fire.
It wasn't until June of 2001 that Mister Bird came a-knockin' on my door again, this time with his most flush and vivid effort to date, The Swimming Hour. Upon first listen, it seemed the band had fully cannibalized itself: the lo-fi sound that was a time machine to a long gone golden age had been replaced by a polished million-dollar sound. Songs jumped from style to style like an epileptic playing hopscotch. Surely this wasn't the Bowl of Fire I knew, and I'd be damned if I was going to enjoy this trash... and yet... yet, the brilliant musicianship is all there. The lyrics? Spot on.
Indeed, Mister Bird had not touched a modern pop record before late 1999, actively avoiding anything that might taint his palate. After being hit by a spell of songwriting that confused him, he finally buckled and purchased The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and realized that he was pidgeonholing himself. Instead of paying tribute to a bygone era, it suddenly became possible for Bird and company to create new sweeping arrangements using the entirety of musical history to paint their canvas.
The band has undergone some lineup changes since the release of The Swimming Hour. Hirsch and Bunn have departed and are replaced by jump blues bassist Jimmy Sutton and guitarist Andy Hopkins, and the band is joined on many occasions by female vocalist Nora O'Connor. Also, as the style of the new music has changed, Mr. Bird is trying to go through his old catalogue and see which of his old songs are salvageable. As a consequence, many of his older songs have mutated into versions nearly indistinguishable as anything near to their former selves. Children, I'll leave it up to your ears to decide whether or not this is for the better.
Now that you're all learned up, kids, I see you sittin' on yer thumbs like there weren't nothin' to do but have a thumb sittin' contest. You see, kids, my words of education can only go so far to learn you properly. To really understand what I'm getting at, you must infuse yourself with a steady aural administration -- an earful, as we said during the war -- of Mister Bird and his fine musical pranksters, The Bowl of Fire. There are no excuses in delaying, my friends.