Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire

It takes a while to get past the packaging of Andrew Bird's second disc, Oh! The Grandeur, and by the time you do, well, the music can wait a little longer (it has already -- for, like, 60 years). Not to slight the fine violin-and-vocals craftsmanship of one Mr. A. Bird -- best known for his contributions to the retrofitted jump and jive of the Squirrel Nut Zippers -- but the artwork of one Mr. C. Ware is worth spending some time with. Indeed, tarry with it at length; revel in the dizzyingly detailed genius that is Chris Ware, the man responsible for ACME Comics and Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth and Quimby the Mouse and a whole cavalcade of other retrofitted postmodern superzeroes. Bird's got good taste and he tastes good; nothing says quality like hiring the handiwork of Chris Ware, just one of many former Daily Texan colleagues who has been far more successful than I. Unfold the booklet to reveal a lunar calendar on one side, with an enormous frightened-faced moon on the other. (And that's not to mention the tiny lyric booklet contained within, a small Cracker Jack treat full of nuggets of info: "Works of art are never finished; they're abandoned," and so forth and so on.)

Peek behind the disc itself to see yet another man in the moon, this one bug-eyed and wild, veins crisscrossing every which way until it appears the moon is hopped up on crank and caffeine...and, of course, a little of Andrew Bird's hot-hot-hot jazz, lifted wholesale from 1932 and transplanted into 1999 as though disco, punk, rap, punk-rap, and that whole Latino-pop explosion never happened. Give the man credit and hope he's good for it: Just when you think you've had enough swing to swing from a rope, along comes Mr. Bird in his wayback (or is that swayback?) machine to make it all seem perfectly normal to live so far in the past. That is, his yesterday jive is neither pop nor pedantic; it has its own heartbeat, borrowing nothing from Louis (Armstrong or Jordan, take your pick) and everything from people whose 78s my grandmother tossed out long before she left Brooklyn for Manhattan.

Though nothing gets my Hebrew heartstrings going like "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" from last year's Perennial Favorites -- which featured an Andrew Bird violin riff lifted straight from the shtetl -- the boy's got klezmer deep in his bones. (Jew can't beat that!) That, and lots of other golden trash he picked up while loitering down Tin Pan Alley late one night with the fellows from Le Quintette du Hot Club de France. Cynics will question the madness in the man's method -- one rather talented musician friend of normally excellent taste finds Bird and band "too commercial," which is like saying fried grease is "too healthy" -- but fear not the venerable vibe. Better still, Bird doesn't write like he's making a point: "I've got a new-found fangled / Fandango tango angle / And it keep things curious yes / And it makes folks furious." It don't mean a thing, but it sure got that swing.

 
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