From the bowels of 20th Century music comes a brilliant, anguished, humorous, grandiose-yet-understated recording from a talented Chicago-based quartet, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. Oh, the Grandeur! (Rykodisc) is a compelling follow-up to an equally intriguing 1997 debut album, Thrills. The group’s sound can be described with little hyperbole as a hybrid of jump blues, hot jazz, waltzing-gypsy swing.
Bowl of Fire is led by 24-year-old violinist Andrew Bird. His poetic vocals and mysterious aura simultaneously seem from a different era and totally of the moment. While at times a bit heavy-handed, there are still accessible, catchy hooks throughout the album. Oh, the Grandeur! is a satisfying sophomore effort that toes the thin line between genius and insanity.
Oh, the Grandeur! starts with an up-tempo gallop Candy Shop, which finds Bird trading off with guitarist Colin Bunn with jazzy freedom. The duo continues to gather steam on the catchy Wishing for Contentment. On this track, Bird and Bunn are aided by a talented rhythm section of Kevin O’Donnell on drums and Josh Hirsh on stand-up bass.
But the real star is violinist Bird, who shows off with emphatic fiddling on Vidalia, a bitter story about a sweet, healing fruit. Bird continues to fiddle, babble and scat on fun, up-tempo tunes with amusing, absurd vocals like Dora Goes to Town. He sings, she’s got a ham in her handbag / a pig in her purse. Bird continues to dazzle on a tango-tinged romp What’s Your Angle (Triangle)? and Coney Island Shuffle, a genre-defying danceable instrumental.
Still, there’s more to this peculiar, brilliant frontman and group. Several songs examine the darker corners of the human psyche, touching on themes of mental illness and social detachment. On Tea & Thorazine, Bird grumbles to an ex-asylum inmate, I can tell by the way you take your infusion/You’ve spent some time in a mental institution/What a dream life would be if only/they let you keep your Etch-a-Sketch. Bird seems to have a slanted, somewhat bitter and removed outlook on the world.
More tales of human peculiarity and alienation appear on the brooding The Idiot’s Genius, Feetlips and a soft-turned-menacing Beware. On Beware, Bird warns, Don’t believe a thing that you might hear/at least from the last 30-40 years/It wasn’t long ago, just before the reign of Nero/We had no concept of zero/So beware.
The band proves its versatility with a sweet, sad ballad, The Confession. Bird croons you’re such a little privateer/as your confession draws more near with a tone reminiscent of a cool, sexy Chet Baker. The album ends on a bitter yet amusing note as Bird scolds a drunk, bleary-eyed audience on A Drinking Song (In the Grande Style). Bird toasts the drunks, wishing them all a hangover for their rude inattention to his performance. With a mischievous, smirky tone, Bird sings, May car alarms that sound around town/may their owners never be found.
The violinist sometimes appears as a sideman for the genre-bending, more commercial Squirrel Nut Zippers. Bird’s klezmer-inspired fiddle steals the show on several Zippers tunes such as Ghost of Steven Foster. While Bird and his Bowl of Fire may not have reached a huge audience, it seems the band is content to roam the land, playing smaller bars like The Black Cat, spreading the gospel, grass-roots style. The group’s hard work and talent deserve a much wider audience and appreciation. Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire continue to innovate, impress and amaze on Oh, the Grandeur!, one of the most interesting albums of the year.