The musical world of Andrew Bird often comes across like a whimsical library, the whistling wonder traipsing around the room of comfortable tables and chairs, picking up everything from complex tomes to classic kids books to reference in his own yet-unfurling epic, as woodland creatures dart around. Oh, and there will be snacks. There will.
On new covers album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, the book that Bird draws from the shelf is one written by his friends, The Handsome Family. Now best known for the use of their song “Far from Any Road” as the theme to the first season of HBO’s True Detective, the Americana duo and Bird shared time in Chicago in the ’90s and have collaborated and covered each other at various points. That long-bred familiarity and respect pervades the album, though it doesn’t overpower it, each and every Handsome Family country twang, murder ballad, and Americana ache lovingly represented in Bird’s familiar tools: that crystal-clear, charming voice, the looping violin, the loping guitar, and the easy chair harmonies.
The violin waterfall that opens “Tin Foiled” (a song previously covered under its actual title, “Tin Foil”, on one of his odds and ends collections, Fingerlings 3) best exemplifies the twist that Bird gives the Family’s tunes; where the Family waltzed under Brett Sparks’ inimitable baritone, Bird flutters along through a quickstep shuffle. The duet vocals from Tift Merritt throughout perfectly pair with Bird’s, her harmonies reaching the same corners of the sky, perhaps most beautifully on “Don’t Be Scared”. In that song, birds, clouds, and seeds comfort the song’s main character, singing out, “Wake up, Paul/ Don’t be scared/ Don’t believe you’re all alone.” This natural, wide-eyed sincerity is quintessential Bird; its not that he’s always chipper and positive, but that even his existentialist doubts are painted in vibrant colors.
The difference there, though, is that The Handsome Family are as interested in the grit, the dirt and the drying, red-black blood as they are the celestial. The downturned reimagining of “So Much Wine” (here as “So Much Wine Merry Christmas”) honors the heartbreaking story of domestic violence; the juxtaposition of the track’s musical beauty is an interesting change, though not half as utterly wrenching as the original, just too fragile and pretty. There aren’t a ton of dark, dirty corners in Andrew Bird’s library, and that’s totally fine; The Handsome Family have done their job of exploring those on their own. ButThings Are Really Great Here is Bird’s own compelling lens looking at what those corners would be like, his own retelling of the way the book he pulled off the shelf described it, and a passionate, heartfelt, dutiful retelling at that.
Essential Tracks: “Tin Foiled”, “Don’t Be Scared”