ANDREW BIRD as part of the Ear To The Ground festival at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Sunday (September 18). $18-$60. www.eartothegroundfest.com. Rating: NNNNN
I guess being screwed over by Sesame Street is reason enough for anyone to suffer existential angst, huh? Consider virtuosic folk-pop violinist and ace whistler Andrew Bird, who was so taken with a vintage Sesame Street snippet about individualism and isolation (OK, it's about tiny cartoon dudes who polish a giant "I") that he decided to rejig the psychedelic 70s riff for one of his own tunes.
Turns out the keepers of the Street weren't so thrilled about his homage.
"Usually, my songs are about someone just trying to figure shit out and not really coming to a satisfactory answer," Bird says on the phone from his Chicago home base. "The best example is Capital I, about a scientist who's trying to figure out why kids are so mean to each other, and he's looking at playgrounds as a petri dish.
"That one's on my last album, Weather Systems, but not in the full lyrical form, cuz the chorus "We all live in a Capital I' is taken from a Sesame Street song. Even though the melody is totally different, Sony Music wanted tons of money for publishing, so I couldn't afford to put it on the record."
Bird still plays it live, but he gave up the fight to keep it on disc. He insists he's never been a huge lyric guy. He's more concerned with keeping the audience's attention and using "sonically appealing" words.
This seems odd to me considering that one of the most striking aspects of his great new Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production Of Eggs (Righteous Babe) disc is the contrast between Bird's effortlessly pretty arrangements and the precise, razor-sharp lyrics, which reference MX missiles and "good little soldiers."
"Political issues have been a recurring theme through all the records, but with this one it seems more poignant. Ever since I was a kid, I've been horrified at the way people behave when they feel comfortable in groups. The song MX Missiles is about how, when I was 19 or 20, my hometown was filled with bizarre, almost ritualistic suicides. I remember every week my mom would have another story, like "Remember so-and-so? He poured gasoline on himself and went up in flames.' It's kind of about how people seem very two-dimensional till they kill themselves and then suicide makes them really seem alive."
Wow. It's possible the rawness of those memories was one reason it took Bird a while to record these songs, many of which were actually written before 2003's Weather Systems.
Compared to that album, The Mysterious Production Of Eggs is both more of a full-band record and a more disconcerting, catch-you-off-guard experience. This time, Bird plays around more with dynamic contrasts, unlikely repetition and jazz-inflected melodies.
That kind of experimentation within a pop context is a huge priority for Bird, who claims country tunes made him carsick and music from the 70s induced nausea when he was a kid. Even now, most contemporary popular music leaves him cold. He cites the 3-against-2 rhythms, polyphonic grooves and percussive clapping of Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series as the only recently issued stuff that inspires him.
Still, while Bird admits he'd love to inject his own music with a shot of that organic polyrhythmic vibe, the songs on his most recent disc don't veer so far into left field.
You get circular string swells that sound as natural and unassuming as breathing, aggressive pizzicato punctuation, unexpected explosions of vicious electric guitar and a mournful backbone of folky acoustic strumming. Oh, and the eerie echo of his silvery, serpentine whistle threading through every few tracks.
For all the buzz about Bird's Suzuki training and genre-jumping string-plucking prowess, one of his most remarkable skills is his ability to incorporate pitch-perfect, theremin-esque whistling into the mix.
"I started when I was really young," Bird explains. "I remember my grandma trying to teach me when I was about six; after that, I'd whistle constantly. I've got a certain physiology that might predispose me to whistling, a strange ambidextrous tongue that helps me get a broad tonal range. I've never met anyone else who has it. It can roll in all directions, and I can form a whole clover leaf.
"At first I never thought to use it in my songs," he continues. "cuz I'm used to things you put on records being so difficult. But it's such a pure tone, and the nicest thing is that my instrument never became physically mapped out. There are no frets, no keys, kind of like a slide whistle it's all about intuition. And not having that mental geometry means that unusual melodies can occur. It's liberating, after so much conservatory training."
FYI: No, he can't tie a cherry stem in a knot with his tongue I asked.