A while back, I watched a video of Andrew Bird improvising with Yo-Yo Ma after an artist-on-artist interview. It was evident that Bird was humbled and honored to play with Ma, but no less confident in his hybrid of classical and folk violin taming—and that master whistling. Over the course of three runs through Ma's melody, Bird felt it out, worked up his run and then layered. It happened so quickly and naturally, it was shocking.
That Noble Beast feels so polished, is, I suppose, not all that surprising, since, in the same sense, it's the third run—Bird's third post-Bowl of Fire full-length (Weather Systems served as a side project). The majority of the songs here are vocal efforts, but while Bird has picked up a soft enunciation akin to a younger "Moving the Goalposts" Billy Bragg (especially on opener "Oh No"), these songs on the whole feel more defined and perfected—and less like the charming channels of musical unknown that were the tracks of Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs.
The experimental boy-genius style seems set aside for studio perfection and "slick" is just not something I immediately crave from Andrew Bird. So, while Noble Beast is as listenable as Eggs or Armchair Apocrypha, it fails to come off as endearing as either of those releases. Nevertheless, there are some great highlights: Bird's ability to layer harmonies and loops with equal parts creativity and brilliant restraint are evident on tracks like the rhythmic "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" and Euro-folky "Effigy."
Still, it's difficult not to take to anything Bird releases, since he's so unique and talented. Though Noble Beast will surely prove to be a "grower" in the months to come, the first listen proves Bird is still himself and the second suggests that, perhaps, he has become, at times, too keen on himself as well.