Violins, the centerpiece of symphonies, are usually confined to melodic asides when it comes to pop music. But with Andrew Bird, who began playing violin at age four or as his website states "Actually it was a Cracker Jack box with a ruler taped to it," turns this little four-stringed instrument into a virtuosity of otherworldly sonic wonders.
The Cracker Jack box can be explained by the Suzuki method by which Bird first learned to play, in which the earliest instructions are taught with these fake violins in order for children to learn proper methodology before even picking up an instrument. The main component of this technique of learning music rests within ear training. Pieces are memorized from repeated listens rather than reading sheet music. What results are musicians that play Bach and Beethoven perfectly with barely any comprehension of music theory. Whereas some Suzuki students eventually steep themselves in the circle of fifths and become first chairs in orchestras, most find themselves in a limbo between the rigid confines of Vivaldi and the free-association abyss of improvisation. Then there's Bird, who invents an entirely new pop sound, a single-man orchestra equal parts Jeff Buckley and Django Reinhardt.
In Armchair Apocrypha, Bird's ninth studio album, guitar plays a more prominent part than ever before, but that does not mean the violin is less important. It shows up everywhere in the many percussive pizzicato runs, the theremin-like wizard sounds, and combined with the more traditional melodic slurs. First constructing his songs playing out measures on violin, guitar, and glockenspiel, Bird then layers these parts and loops them. Combine that with a deadly sense for catchy pop hooks and you've got the songs that make up this album.
With help from the breathy mellow vocals of Haley Bonar on several of the tracks, including the feel-good opening track "Firey Crash," this album is full of songs you will want to sing along to. "Imitosis" is a percussive masterpiece with loops of pizzicato plucks, xylophone, and drum machine set to a sort-of Latin beat.
Other songs, like the seven-minute "Armchair," take a sprawling orchestral approach. Starting with a minor symphony of strings followed by a slowly strummed guitar and lulling keyboards, Bird's vocals don't come in for over a minute. He sings as though each note is a lulling bow stroke on his violin. Then an arc of keyboards and strings appears for just a moment before cutting back. Guitar comes into play and starts to build on the layers, followed by accordion. Then everything rushes in and Bird lets loose with "Time's a crooked bow," repeating the phrase several times until the explosion cuts out again to reveal the earlier subtle bars. But the song doesn't end there--this explosion happens one more time and ends with the lull.
Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha is an album of masterful dynamics, intricate percussion, and utter emotion topped with a divine voice and composed with a keen pop sensibility. It is an instant classic. I'm sure glad he picked up that Cracker Jack box when he was four. • Katy Henriksen