Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory

by Tom Doherty (Journalism), published November 14th 2012

Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!

How much can one say about Andrew Bird? The dude gets it. I’m tempted to end this review right there. Everything this Chicagoan does is beautiful. From his self-released debut album in 1996, through his jazzy Bowl of Fire years, to his prolific 2012, Bird has consistently produced high quality music. He has released nine full-length studio albums, two companion albums/EPs, six live albums, and six more EPs since 1996. The man has practically churned out more material than the Law & Order franchise.

Hands of Glory is Bird’s recently released EP, which comes just over half a year after the superb fourteen-track Break It Yourself. The EP, while serving as a companion piece, is a testament to Bird’s versatility as an artist when compared to its full-length counterpart. Break It Yourself is a collection of fourteen songs that bring the genres of folk, jazz, and indie rock together in a stunning arrangement. It shines the spotlight on Bird’s violin while emphasizing the ironic juxtaposition of such a grandiose instrument and his laid-back, just-plain-fun whistling. Hands of Glory, on the other hand, ditches the violin for the plucking of a fiddle and you have to make an effort to find Bird’s trademark whistling.

It can be said that the whistling helps make Andrew Bird’s music what it is. Well, it makes sense that the whistling is missing from Hands of Glory, because the EP only has a few original songs, such as the opening track, “Three White Horses.” After that, there are covers of country artists like the Handsome Family and Lonnie Donegan as well as a reworking of “Orpheo Looks Back,” one of Bird’s songs from Break It Yourself.

“Three White Horses” starts off the EP and seems to pick up right where Bird’s preceding album left off. It is a song with resounding ambience that nears on spookiness. Its hymn-like music perfectly complements Bird’s visceral vocals as he sings “Don’t dismiss it like it’s easy. /Tell me what’s so easy/ About coming to say goodbye?” After the opening track, however, there is a sharp change of direction for Hands of Glory. The second track is a cover (and vast improvement) of the Handsome Family’s “When That Helicopter Comes” and the EP immediately takes on a sound bordering on bluegrass. I’m no fan of country music but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Andrew Bird.

From that point on, the EP departs from Break It Yourself stylistically. What follows is three covers of country songs with Bird’s own touch making each one better than its original, which is something I rarely say about covers, with an adaptation of his own song and an original thrown in between. “Railroad Bill” is the only disappointment of the album. This cover of Lonnie Donegan has its moments, but ultimately lands with a thud and ruins the flow of the album. On the other side of the spectrum is “Orpheo,” a slower variant of Bird’s “Orpheus Looks Back.” Bird’s emotive lyrics pack a stronger punch with the gentle pace. The whistles from the original are gone, leaving only his poignant singing. And the resulting track is beautiful.

Hands of Glory is an excellent set of songs, but it lacks the originality of most of Bird’s work. Of course, how much originality can you expect when half of the tracks are covers? He certainly puts his own spin on the songs. But they still do not–or perhaps cannot–reach the lofty heights of Andrew Bird originals. Regardless, Hands of Glory is damn good for what it was meant to be. Andrew Bird – he just gets it.

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