French Version: http://humeursurmusiquemoderne.blogspot.com/2011/04/andrew-bird-armchair-apocrypha-ou.html
It seems rather obvious nowadays that the musical/take away food industry no longer is what it used to be which was an industry able to make us dream while selling what once was a product AND art. It’s not really the case with the micro wave stuff we get nowadays in the nicely arranged stores of the local Virgin Megastore, HMV or Tesco. So you could then say that before, we were not completely protected against one or two subliminal message or, for the lucky ones, a bad acid trip, but it was still better than the soporific and hypnotic soup they serve us on the radios now. Fortunately, a group of rebels still resists, hidden in some independent labels still daring to let their artists express themselves. No magic tricks needed here or massive marketing campaigns, these people spread their sound the old fashion way: by performing all over the world, playing their music to the people. Among them, there is one who does that for nearly 13 years now and that, year after year, became one of the bests or even THE very best. It is in one of these performances that I have discovered the young man, in a small venue in the south of France where he bewitched the whole crowd, which was about 70 people that night. Two years later, I was happy to hear he was performing into the biggest venues of France (l’Olympia) in his tour promoting his new album, Armchair Apocrypha, the record I have chosen to review today. It’s thanks to the success of the previous The Mysterious Production Of Eggs and with this Armchair Apocrypha released less than 2 years later that Andrew Bird keep on increasing his public and critical success, but let’s cut to the chase.
The record starts with strength and dives us in its specific sound without letting us test the water temperature, this electric, echoic, almost glaucous sound that colors the major part of the album. That’s on “Fiery Crash” that the record opens. The track ramps up little by little. The appearance of violins and loops comes finally on the shape of reverse loops. We can then understand the birdman decided to push his experiments further than where he let them last time. The rhythmic guitar is direct all along the track, close of what Andrew show us on his live performances. We are in something rougher, less defined and way darker evidenced by the soft but low voice he takes on this track. We are warned here, this record is an excursion into the human soul and it will plunge us into the darkest sides of the human soul. We have a confirmation right away with the next track, "Imitosis", cover of his "Capital I", dealing with the famous cruelty of which are capable our lovely toddlers. With a wry attitude, Andrew keeps on telling us about the moist blackness of the human mind. We finally find back the pizzicato violin loops that we have been used to by the bird. The whole is efficient, not the best work of Bird though. We can however take note of the progresses made since last time regarding the production and the finesse of the arrangements, an infinite finesse of which we’ll discuss later. This said, we can maybe blame the lack of madness on the drum side of Martin Dosh, the new accomplice of the orchestra man. This mad scientist/drummer that is Dosh doesn’t really show us the extent of his talent.
"Plasticities" comes next, a pure birdian song. We are quickly bewitched by arpeggios that keep coming and the far whistles supplanted by the soft and light voice of Andrew. This title is the first thinning of this Armchair Apocrypha. We are however still in the same approach of the sound than previously, with a heavy guitar sound, close of the one he uses during his shows, arpeggios in the back and even further whistles. The whole is supported by bass lines made on Rhodes. Anyway, a very specific sound that gives us the impression of being on the edge of an endless gulf in which we can’t really say whether we are about to jump to find out what’s in there or stay there and remain forever without the answer…
The next track seems a bit incoherent. “Heretics” is indeed quite different. Sure, we still have the same logic regarding the sound, a syncopated rhythmic which seems far away, but we’re still under the impression everything doesn’t mix as it should to be honest. The whole is a bit dull and suffers a lack of craziness according to me.
We then get to the album’s title. We can hear violins whine far away like wandering spirits before the guitar comes and calm that chaos. A theme is introduced by a weirdly sounding piano, almost disturbing. Then Bird comes softly put his voice on the violins worrying and morbid whispers. We then follow Andrew wondering where he is taking us. By confusing us, never really sticking to a melodic logic, this track is in a way a slow progression until the chorus’ explosion, similar to a wave slowly but surely crashing against a dam before everything calms down and goes back on something different again. So to be honest, we are quite confused. Apart from this sound so specific figuring all along the track, it’s kind of hard to find a reading direction to this "Armchair Apocrypha". We have the feeling we are immersed in the windings of a deep dream, incoherent and yet logical, carted in the deepness of the artist endless imagination which plunges us into the chaos of our emotions.
All that leaves space for an invigorating explosion that is "Dark Matter". Here again, the sound and structure of the track are in the line of what we have heard so far. However, the atmosphere here is much fresher and much more positive. We approach here a fast and beneficial ascension. We can feel the Bird’s got confidence since the success of his former albums, he’s chilled out and clearly takes pleasure in songs like this one.
We then get a real preview of what’s Martin Dosh (the drummer for those that have trouble keeping the track…) is capable of with this composition signed by the two rare birds. We remain in the ascension begun by Dark Matter with a weird robotic rhythmic to which mixes the warm and touching voice of Bird.
The fast ascension of which I was talking about before, just there, few lines ago, is stopped right away by the interlude that is "The Supine" and "Cataracts", simply beautiful. This track is a bit different of the others because of the comeback of the acoustic guitar which had helped build the success of the orchestra man, and the violins less far and that give this way, a less dramatic atmosphere than what we have had so far. That set place to the surprising "Scythian Empires" where the acoustic guitar and the closer violins are still present. This song is a real breath of fresh air after all we’ve been through on this album. It is for me one of the best tracks of the record (and in concert too). Bird has clearly enjoyed speaking about an unusual topic, the Scythians, a people of ancient Ukraine among the first to have trained horses, topic that fascinated him when he was in high school.
"Spare-Ohs", the last song of Armchair Apocrypha, is once again quite simple and positive. It is not of great interest but it’s still pleasant to listen. We will be pleased by the two voices harmonies reminder of the Weather Systems of the same Andrew Bird, or, thanks to some well thought shades before we hear the birds whistling announcing the end of the album. These very same birds present on the record’s cover or in the artist’s name introduce a calming and ironic "Yawny at the Apocalypse", a warming ray of light after the grueling crossing of the swamps of the human soul we’ve been through.
That closes Armchair Apocrypha which, without being the best work of Bird, will at least have the merit of making us think and change us because we don’t get out the same person of this/these listening/s. This is something quite unusual nowadays that has to be mentioned.