Andrew Bird

The Mysterious Production of Eggs

(Righteous Babe; 2005)

By Dom Sinacola | 9 February 2005

Has Andrew Bird changed much?

It seemed a fair question to ask four albums ago, when he ditched gnarled gypsy folk and Dixieland brass for the haunted acid jazz of Oh! The Grandeur (1999), or three albums ago as he went deep into “a more updated take,” multi-tracking 2001‘s (#10 on my Top 60, #1 in my heart) The Swimming Hour. It’s an even better question to ask now that The Mysterious Production of Eggs is his eighth album, including two live Fingerlings, and his first proper full-length on Righteous Babe. He’s dropped the Bowl of Fire for four years. A man of numbers he is; all hyperbole intended, can he continue to sound any more charming or laid back as the weight of his arrangements fattens?

As Brad Roberts, lead singer of the Crash Test Dummies, has told Bird, with all humility and praise during their dual performances on the Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour: “Personally, I can barely play guitar and sing at the same time. And as much as I enjoyed his show, I find it nerve-racking to watch you, friend, because I keep waiting for something to fall apart.” I can attest, friend, because watching Bird live is witnessing a man alone on the brink of collapse. Sampling and looping with a determined breadth of timing, Bird seems just as aware of the potential for destruction as his audience. Seemingly fueled on Lady Luck, Bird traipses through dangerous solo shows and comes out making it look all too easy.

In the sense of giving an apt studio interpretation to Bird’s penchant for wire-balancing acts, Eggs thoroughly and wetly marks its territory. Paul Boucher’s production is proficient and often excellent, setting up a solid tension between the ghostly legato of Bird’s violin and the spare flourishes of electronic garble or Kevin O’Donnell’s bass-heavy percussion. “Untitled” introduces sunset cowboy Bird teaching his horse to whistle an old hustler’s theme; thick layers of violins are his buttermilk sun. “Sovay” follows, Bird’s innocent boozehound swing couched by a smooth mat of vibes and the consistent presence of plucked violin. It's quickly rumped by “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” which shifts from acoustic gaiety to chunky grunge and quick back to a Western symphony of whistling and slick romantic harmonies. A soft synth blip creeps in, off-count, before Bird calms the critter to sleep. Problem is, too often Bird plays the level-headed mother to his music’s devious bombast.

So, as crisp and confident as Bird’s albums normally sound, a certain nimbleness trips around Egg’s demeanor. “Measuring Cups” plights staccato snares against Bird’s vocal arpeggio; dark tribal rhythms plot the escape of the terrified violins from the devious electric guitar in “Banking on a Myth.” The first third of Eggs scrambles with unapologetic differences in dynamic, always about to shatter and piece apart, but “Masterfade” reigns in the shrapnel with a board junkie’s touch.

It’s no use. “Opposite Day” and “The Naming of Things” pick up and take delicate byways through creepy new wave and fall into adult contemporary, pulling off the ugly acrobatics of such genre dodging with a knack for irking any sound out of the violin and a gumption for layered vocals. I wait for it with gritted teeth: the perfect unison of squeaky guitar and wall of strings hits. Maybe the structure of it all--careful to cradling and over again--is a predictable part of Bird’s best years, but it’s still a big exciting progression.

It ends with “The Happy Birthday Song,” a testament to ennui with one of the most satisfying ka-blam! crescendos the Evanston native has ever set to track. “And I slowly / And so softly / I do the dishes / And I feed the fishes,” he chirps before every tool of sound at his disposal slowly, and so softly, explodes under his passive gaze.

When Andrew Bird isn’t precious, he’s gold. Although The Mysterious Production of Eggs lacks the gleeful variety of Swimming Hour, it is obvious that Bird has created his most cohesive statement to date, picking up the frayed ends where Weather Systems (2003) so abruptly shunted and wrapping the bundle in Jay Ryan’s warped Saturday morning illustrations. Even so, as firmly as his melodies develop and as resilient as his stage antics seem, he still comes off as a man about to combust. Sometimes that much “gracery” gets too cute.

And the ultimate answer to my earlier question? Sure. But does it matter? Eh. C’mon, the cat got Chris Ware to draw for him.