Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Noble Beast - Andrew Bird (Spring 2009)

Noble Beast

Andrew Bird
Fat Possum Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

Could anyone have caught a first glimpse of Noble Beast’s bountiful landscape shot and pegged exactly what it would sound like? Sure… I mean, the grassland picture sprawls in all directions – as far back as the eye can see, over the CD’s spine and coursing across the backside’s tracklisting – not unlike the compositions themselves, which flow from one pastoral ditty to the next. Unlike Armchair Apocrypha’s cover-shot of a perched bird looking away, surrounded by black and paralleled with the back of Bird’s head, we’re given no direct focus this time around. That’s no fluke and here’s my point: Noble Beast’s direction was predictable on a superficial level yet indiscernible upon deeper listening. Two months ago I could’ve panned this album as an aimless follow-up to 2007’s meticulous rock record, but this isn’t aimless… largely because it isn’t a rock record at all. Grand questions about genres and ambitions come into play on Noble Beast; a record worth debating, if not emotionally investing yourself to.

The Illinois native’s opening couplet, ‘Oh No’ and ‘Masterswarm’, establish the album’s duality; short, whistle-addled pop tunes next to morphing, organic growers. The frequent appearance of both song-types isn’t indicative of songwriter-indecision so much as it suggests an attempt to keep listeners interested. Commendable then, as when you realize these fourteen tracks largely work amid unassuming, acoustic instrumentation, the tempo is pretty key. Instead of the pronounced electric guitar that opened ‘Fiery Crash’ or the pop chorus of ‘Plasticities’, Noble Beast slides between folk-flavoured nuances as laidback as ‘Natural Disaster’ or Shins-styled ‘Nomenclature’. As such, the sprawling divide created by freeform works like ‘Souverian’ and ‘Anonanimal’ – both of which reference neo-classical trademarks convincingly - are essential in questioning this album’s authenticity in the indie-rock category. Speaking of those last two tracks, I must confess that Bird’s thesaurus love-in is interfering with his craft, castrating expert instrumentals with clumsy verbosity. Just listening to him try to incorporate the word ‘Tenuousness’ repeatedly into a chorus makes me happy I don’t have to catch up with him over coffee.

Piece by piece, Noble Beast is revealing itself to be a daunting task to understand, decode, and thoroughly enjoy. While its adventurism does occasionally stray into meandering, I remain curious of its potential. Like Radiohead’s Amnesiac, Noble Beast is a misunderstood cousin to its respective discography; a release that garners polite approval and shrugging shoulders while skirting commercial acceptance at the artist’s pinnacle of hype. I might forget about it within the month or react like I did with that darkhorse Radiohead record and grow more accepting of its oddity. After all, let’s be honest: a discography is no fun without at least one full-length question mark.

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