US - Illinois - Full Moon 221 - 09/09/14
Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...
Wegawam Music Co.
Andrew Bird loves The Handsome Family. Well, at least he admires them. A lot. Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... is a collection of cover versions, or adaptations of songs
by fellow Illinoisans (for some time: they formed in Chicago, IL, but are now based in Brett's hometown, in Albuquerque, New Mexico), Brett and Rennie Sparks, A.K.A. The Handsome Family.
This is not the first time Andrew Bird performs songs by The Handsome Family couple. Earlier he has done "Don't Be Scared" (on his 2003 album, Weather Systems), "Giant of Illinois"
(for the 2009 compilation album Dark Was the Night), and "When That Helicopter Comes" (Hands of Glory, 2012). Bird
also toured with the husband-and-wife duo last year. So, here we go, sort of...
Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... is American singer-songwriter Andrew Bird's eighth solo studio album, and Bird hardly never do no bad mistakes. Once again he flies, bows
and whistles his songs straight into our hearts. As does the songs from the The Handsome Family (THF) songsbook. The duo's catalogue has been hailed and praised all over [they've put out nine
studio albums so far, including last year's biology/zoology/entomology exploration album, Wilderness, and, they've been faithful to Carrot Top Records ever since their debut back in
1994]: "One of the ten essential Americana records of all time..." (MOJO on Through the Trees, 1998); "One
of the most important records of the 21st century..." (UNCUT, on In the Air, 2000); "One of the 100 best songs ever written about
heartbreak..." (The Guardian UK, on the song "Weightless Again", 1998). However, this is not only about Mr and Mrs Sparks. This is Mr Bird's album (even though the songs are penned
by the Sparks couple). Things Are Really Great Here... is played and performed with love and affection, and holds songs of love and affection. Plus some additional sadness,
drunkenness, loneliness, heartbreak, doubt, ... all of the usual ingredients for quality country, or Americana songs needed (remember Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", right?).
Andrew Bird goes through ten tunes in just over 35 minutes, and the result is a comforting collection of songs. "Cathedral In the Dell" opens the ball (it's originally entitled "Cathedrals",
taken from THF's 1998 album Through the Trees). 'The cathedral in Cologne looks like a spaceship...', Bird croons, sounding like he's
a mixture of Roy Orbison and Chris Isaak. It's a song with fine lyris portraying aging, decay, and lifespan/lifetime. The merry "Tin Foiled" follows (originally entitled "Tin Foil", off
Milk and Scissors, 1996). It sounds like being a Bird original. The song itself, the vocals (quite obviously), the arrangement, the violin string picks, everything. Really cool song.
There are two more songs lifted off THF's Through the Trees album: "Giant of Illinois" (yes, from the Dark Was the Night compilation) and "My Sister's Tiny Hands". The former
is a very fine ballad, based on the sad story of the tallest person that ever lived: Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918-1940), A.K.A. the Alton Giant, or the Giant of Illinois, of Alton, Illinois,
USA. He reached 8 feet 11.1 inches, or 2.72 m, and he died from a brace causing a blister on his ankle. 'Delirious with pain, his bedroom walls began
to glow...' Sad, but true story. The latter is even more sad-drenched, if possible, about revenging your dead (snake-bitten) twin sister. Country ballads rule, yes! Let's get something
to drink! "So Much Wine, Merry Christmas" (originally entitled "So Much Wine", taken from THF's album In the Air, from 2000) is another delicate ballad. Extremely well-performed, neatly
arranged, exellently and elegantly executed. Salud! While we're at the bar, let's have another one - another round, another shot: "Drunk By Noon" (taken from THF's album Milk and Scissors,
1996) is not a noisy drunkard's ballad, of curse, but it's a classic all time high sad-and-lonely, drinking-to-forget ballad. Epic. Classy. Elegant. 'If
my life was as long as the moon's / I'd still be jealous of the sun / If my life lasted only one day / I'd still be drunk by noon'.
Then, two songs taken from the album In the Air (2000) follows: "The Sad Milkman" and "Don't Be Scared". The first one is quite plain, but "Don't Be Scared" is a much better song.
In fact it sails up as one of the better tracks off this album. Very good. "Frogs Singing" (originally entitled "Frogs", taken from THF's last album Wilderness) is yet another fine
example of great song-writing from The Handsome Family AND great interpretations, or adaptations by Anrew Birds. But, the grand final comeslast: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of...
ends with the colossal "Far From Any Road (Be My Hand)" (originally entitled "Far From Any Road", from Singing Bones, 2003). THF's original was used as the theme song for HBO's acclaimed
crime drama True Detective and - hold yer horses! - it was used as as the opening song for Guns n'Roses' 2014 world tour! In Andrew Bird's hands the song is lifted further up in the air -
if possible. Bird's rendition is very, very different from the original. It's laidback, playful, artistic, airy, spellbinding (well, that's the spirit of THF's songs in general...). The song
is pure magic. Let it captivate you and make it hold your breath.
Copyright © 2014 Håvard Oppøyen