The crappy thing about these periodic flare-ups of vintage-sounding music—I’m thinking of the Squirrel Nut Zippers here, specifically—is that they tend to make mayfly pop stars out of bands who accidentally happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or maybe not so accidentally; doesn’t matter. The most cursory of listens to a Squirrel Nut Zippers album is enough to clue the listener in on a piercing musical intelligence that transcends any hint of novelty act or rank bandwagoneering. Yet to many, that’s exactly what the Squirrel Nut Zippers were when they swang into kiss-of-death, glossy-rock-mag legitimacy some five years ago. They’re still together; you just don’t hear about them much anymore.
That kind of stardom is unlikely to happen to sometime Squirrel Nut fiddler Andrew Bird, if only because his reverence and mastery of olde-tyme American music idiom is too encyclopedic, eccentric and unpredictably synergistic to be corralled into any kind of marketability for mass consumption. To put it another way, until America opens its mind to a wicked musical schooling by a classically trained violinist who seems to be hearing all pre-1955 or so American recorded music at once and rewriting it just as it flies off his bow, musicians like Andrew Bird and his band, Bowl of Fire, are condemned to wander forever, like Tennyson’s Tithonus, in the misty umbra of the widespread popularity they deserve.
And not just American music, either. You hear the influences of German lyrical poetry and Leider in Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, the craft of Kurt Weill and Bertholdt Brecht, and a slew of nonmusical references as well. One track from The Swimming Hour, the band’s third album for Rykodisc, borrows its name from one of those delightfully nasty little books by illustrator Edward Gorey. Indeed, there’s a very Gorey sensibility about much of Bird’s work that varies in theme and texture from the gentleman’s fugue to a wild place (Bird’s “Dear Old Greenland,” cf. Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp) to the horror, unhingement, and hysteria that can be heard in some measure in most of his songs in the same way that something really sinister seems to be woven into the rug or lurking at the edges of almost everything Gorey has drawn. It’s deeply agoraphobic, and that’s meant as a compliment, as is this feeling that much of what Bird does sounds a bit too contemporary in execution to belong on a brittle 78 shellac, but belongs there in spirit, anyway.
Of course, what’s really strange is that it all makes for such rousing stuff. The live pyrotechnics are there on The Swimming Hour in spore form; it’s a safe reckon (and I have it on good authority) that Bird and his band really kick them loose in concert.
Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire play the Blue Heron this Friday at 9:30. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 day of show.