Not three years ago, Andrew Bird was strictly a jazz violin prodigy, hiring himself out to the likes of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Kevin O'Donnell's Quality Six while playing his own theatrical, lyrically dense cabaret/jazz numbers for the Bowl of Fire. Then he bought his first pop record and it all went to hell.

In this case, friends, that's a good thing. In the years between his last album, Oh! The Grandeur, and now, Bird has managed to absorb the entire past half-century of music and learned to create perfect three-minute pop songs that fairly burst with strings and chiming guitar and intricate wordplay, bringing a tear to the eye and a shake to the booty, as it were. Bird kicks the whole affair off with the dreamy '60s-reminiscent road trip tale "Two Way Action," harmonizing with recent Bowl of Fire addition Nora O'Connor on lines like "yeah, I think I'm gonna call my mother/ Let the subject wander/ To issues of blonde hair/ Or something or other..." so gorgeously you almost overlook the tongue-twisting narrative that's at the heart of this song and every other on the album.

And so it goes, from garage rock to vaudeville to '30s hot jazz to Spector-esque sweeping pop epics and twangy, laid-back Western rock, all blended together seamlessly in one great big polysyllabic love letter to the outsiders of the world; to the folks whose every behavior is pathologized by well-meaning shrinks, the genuinely mentally messed-up, the wanderers, the unlucky in love and everything else. The whole outrageous affair climaxes with next-to-last wild soul-pop rave-up "How Indiscreet," featuring girl-group harmonies from O'Connor and Kelly Hogan (whose collaborator Andy Hopkins is the Bowl of Fire's current guitarist), wrapped with a shiny ribbon of sinuous electric organ and rough-edged violin. Over it all, Bird murmurs, croons and yelps like he's being chased by the entire Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It's full of the sort of explosive Great Pop Moments that make you want to throw open your window, no matter the weather, lean out and scream along.

Some older fans of the Bowl of Fire claim this album is too mainstream; I'm thinking these must be the hardcore jazz fans, who think that any recording using overdubs or (shock! horror!) electric guitar is a sure sign of selling out. The hell with those people. This record is, clearly, not remotely like anything you'll hear on the radio this year, which could be one of the great sins of our time. Andrew Bird's jazz and classical training is still very much in evidence in every song's structure, in every awesomely crisp drum fill from Kevin O'Donnell, and in the delicate and virtuosic violin lines that feature in every song. In fact, the three-minute pop song format seems to be the place where Bird has found his voice; he's matured immensely over the course of just three albums with the Bowl of Fire, from mostly performing old standards and letting his violin skills dictate every song, only singing in a creaky, shy baritone when he absolutely had to, to the incredible assuredness he sports now. He's got a much larger palette of sound to work with now and it only serves to make him more innovative and even more hyper-literate lyrically. And, still just in his mid-twenties, he shows signs of only going further up from here.

The Swimming Hour winds up with the weirdly soulful ode to "Dear Old Greenland," which in a mid-song spoken word break Bird calls "a vast and terrifying place of ice fields and tundra," later declaring, "Friends, I'm going there!" with a conviction that sounds like it could bring a trail of adoring fans up there with him, hanging on his every note. These songs just might melt the polar icecaps.

  1. Two Way Action
  2. Core and Rind
  3. Why?
  4. 11:11
  5. Case In Point
  6. Too Long
  7. Way Out West
  8. Waiting to Talk
  9. Fatal Flower Garden
  10. Satisfied
  11. Headsoak
  12. How Indiscreet
  13. Dear Old Greenland

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