Who said pop music had to be of its time? Why must it be "contemporary" be enslaved by the idiom du jour of any given year? What do we gain by insisting that everything sound the same? We gain an ease of entry. By only paying attention to the present, we know right away the context of what we are hearing, so enjoying a new piece of music doesn't require more than the ability to recognize that the form has been tweaked.
But what if we envision a pop music unencumbered by the constraints of recent trends? What if we use as a palette the entirety of 20th-century recorded musical history, then pick and choose the characteristics that strike our fancy? What we lose in easy classification we gain in variety and imagination. In this world, Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire would not sound unusual. The band would be judged without regard for the obvious fact that the music relies exclusively on stylistic approaches that are more than 50 years old.
"To me," singer/songwriter/violin player Andrew Bird explains, "the desire to create something new is an inherent desire. There's just no issue. I'm so absorbed in what I'm doing that the style of an era just doesn't mean anything to me anymore. It may have a long time ago. Maybe that's what originally drew me to it. But, now, it's not an issue."
The music of Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire is not a throwback. It's too out there to have been created in the 1930s. To modern ears, which have rarely explored much beyond a few classics of that era, Bird's music can sound like a period piece. But listen closely and you'll notice deviations, a klezmer-influenced solo linked to a jazzy framework, or a sly discordant bridge placed in the middle of a sweet, Broadwayesque show tune. In our postmodern world, mixing and matching bits of genres is common; back then, it was rare.
"The fact is, this is the music that I surround myself with," Bird says. "It happens to be, to some people, old music, but in the real scope of things, it's not that long ago, really. But, we also might sound different or unique, because we really respect the tradition, just not in an academic kind of stiff way. We try to make it vital. I've always been attracted to music that is socially vital to me and musically vital."
What does Bird mean by the phrase "socially vital"?
"When I was in college, I was in conservatory," he explains, "which was a weird atmosphere to be in. I wasn't very happy in that environment. I sought out other things, partially out of a thirst to do other things, to find new music. I got into Irish music, which is really happening here in Chicago, just because there is a community that supports it. You'd go to sessions, sit around in a circle and play tunes, carry on the oral tradition. That was really cool. Unlike my peers in Irish music, I wasn't quite absorbed enough in it. I wasn't into learning hundreds of tunes whether they were interesting tunes or not. They would do it for the sake that it was Irish music, you've got to love it. I more liked the atmosphere of that, the oral tradition, the social aspect of sitting around with people and playing tunes. It didn't really matter that it was Irish music. It did matter that it was alive.
"I've been attracted to different types of music based on that. On my own, I've explored Eastern European music, Scandinavian music and Latin music. Right now, I'm really getting into playing traditional old-time American music, country music and Western swing."
Bird takes all these traditions, finds the parts he enjoys and applies them to his Bowl of Fire. He has just released his second album of this music, titled Oh! The Grandeur (Rykodisc). Like the material on Thrills, his first LP, the album is a romp of exotic delights. Everything sounds vaguely familiar, yet also distant, on first listen. You know that Latin beat; you swear you've heard Bing Crosby croon that pop tune; and you're convinced Stephane Grappelli or Joe Venuti is giving Bird a few lessons. But keep on playing the album, and you realize that these songs stand on their own. After a few listens, you stop thinking of them as genre exercises at all. The songs have strong melodies, rooted in conventions long since abandoned by the public. But the revival of these conventions serves as a springboard, not an end in itself.
"A lot of times I'll be working within a certain mode or style of music," says Bird, "and when I really decide to write a song is when I step outside that and twist it around a little bit. So many great classic songs, or at least in that period of classic songwriting from Tin Pan Alley through the early '60s, sometimes it can just be one bar that made that song a hit. The rest of the song could be really bad. You can tell that whoever was writing it probably made a mistake, and stepped outside of the normal formula, and accidentally did something cool, and said, wait a minute. That's part of the process."
For Bird, the process starts with the music, not the words. "It's balanced between the intellect and the soul," he explains. "It's using your ear and hearing what words sound right for a particular phrase, though they don't necessarily have any direct meaning. I think when you think less about the lyrics, you sometimes write better lyrics.
"I first started writing when I decided to do Thrills," he continues. "I had been primarily focused on playing the violin for the last 22 years. Then, a couple years ago, I realized I needed to rebel against having my identity be too closely associated with my instrument. I just went, who cares? I'm not trying to prove anything with the violin. I just hired myself to play in my band. I just aspired to higher levels of things, the whole instead of just the playing."
The playing is immaculate, beautiful, resourceful, imaginative, surprising and damn great! Josh Hirsch on bass and Kevin O'Donnell on drums fuel the rhythmic fire while Bird's violin and Colin Bunn's guitar create delightful melodies.
As he did with Thrills, Bird insisted on recording Oh! The Grandeur live, this time with only one microphone. "It was hard," Bird says. "There were times when I questioned whether this was a wise idea or not. A lot of times, people get into the studio and say, well, this is it I better do things very carefully and controlled. That's been the predominant practice for recording for the last 20 or 30 years, to totally isolate everything individually so you can reconstruct the appearance of a real sound later on. We just kind of felt like we're solid musicians; we should be able to do this live. I can hear the difference. I'm glad we stuck to that, although at times it was very difficult."
Andrew Bird knows he doesn't live in an imaginary pop universe. He takes his Bowl of Fire out into the clubs, touring frequently and catching the ears of audiences looking for something a bit different yet not inaccessible. "I'm very ambitious," Bird says. "I think we're gonna be a confusing band to a lot of people, but I hope we have a lot of potential and a lot of things to offer. And I think we might even pose a threat in some ways. We look around, we're seeing what's happening, and we're savvy. We want to be really relevant. We don't have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. We know you've got to go out there and really grab people, and make your music appealing any way you can."
Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire plays at the Side Door on Saturday, Aug. 28. Opening will be the Blacks.