Andrew Bird

Soldier On EP

(Grimsey; 2008)

By Dom Sinacola | 6 March 2008

Soldier On, though rather long for an EP and culled from the last year or two of Andrew Bird at his most prolific where prolificacy equals a sudden if bewildering awareness of Bird’s past, mostly ignored prolificacy, is possibly his blandest offer to date. And not because the music is absolutely boring, only relatively, as if, comforted by the burgeoning worldwide attention, Bird’s able to treat his looping edifices of strings, whistles, and xylophones like firm walls, protecting and entombing him in situations where he previously would have stood poised for a breakdown, like a halfstep from losing control on stage—not toeing that pedal at precisely the right moment—and collapsing into a heap of noise. Mostly, its demarcations are thick: no Swimming Hour (2001) to be had at this time, only Weather Systems (2003) and up; to speak broadly, whimsy and experimentation have been replaced by concision, and if Bird’s finally found the sound and identity that the world can love him for, can hear wistfully in a pub, smoke leavened by the inhuman richness of his whistle, and cheers him for, then he’s basically tempered the hothouse-freejazz-onemic-bowlofire plundering of the past that allowed Swimming Hour to seem so wild in the first place.

Which doesn’t mean that only the initiated can understand the canonical stakes the EP’s setting up here. Far from it. Soldier On, which was available up until recently only at stops on Bird’s European tour, is basically just a pretty good EP with material that could have easily been left to vaults or future Fingerlings or free downloads and with a dash of foreshadowing quirk. That inkling of the future is, as you’ve probably already been told, “The Trees Were Mistaken,” but for all the mournful ghosts of violin legatos creeping underneath the bramble of strings on top, exacerbating the deviousness of the programmed drum loop that Martin Dosh helped make indelible to Bird’s current paradigm, the song is still as expected as the other “weird” track, the wandering, fluffy instrumental “Sectionate City.” Both are kinda old hat as far as Bird’s concerned—like wow, goddamn, can that boy loop and layer and jigsaw so effortlessly or, hey now, he’s got a buzzsaw bit of bowed melody that finally mimics the latent, possibly even luddite dread that’s always been in his lyrics anyway—but what makes them probably act like a new direction for the songwriter is in how cleanly Bird’s conceits come off, as if he’s finally spelunk’d his way through all of his powerfully technical adroitness, classical training, and exponentially honing studio presence to cut to the marrow and follow one delicious idea straight to the end. In this case we have “building of dire emotional tension through monotonous, if grim, arpeggio and not whistling too much.” And shit works!

In other words, you won’t crap your pants over the ostensible possibilities of future Bird, just as you won’t crap your pants over your hero losing his touch and charging you a stupid price for some fans-only pap. The “remix” of “Plasticities” is, frankly, almost identical to the original (yeah, purists, some difference in backup vocals and a slyly uptempo bridge alter the physical size of the track a tad) and the demo “Heretics” just affirms the empirical, unassailable talent of Andrew Bird sans the bells and (natch) whistles. Don’t forget the two covers; they’re good though they just distract, tagged on and obvious, epilogues for a release that shouldn’t have any. But there’s an excellent, thorough EP here steaming between the lines, in the four pieces of new, and even “The Water Jet Cilice,” dainty, spare, patient, recalls Bird pre- Armchair Apocrypha (2007) in how unaffectedly the instruments stroll together through barely trite descriptions of some exotic Cohen-ish dame. “Cilice,” truly, points to the future, more, perhaps, than any other track debuted here. If Andrew Bird is only becoming the manifested effortlessness of every rabid play he’s plowed through and picked from before, then the most telling bid for a next album would be a song that is stark, ballad-y, and, most importantly, unashamed by how much, how simply it sounds like every other Andrew Bird joint before. The white space in the song, I’m telling you, is breathtaking.