Album Review: Andrew Bird ‘Hands of Glory’

When Andrew Bird recorded Break It Yourself he found himself with a separate collection of songs along a slightly different theme, which wouldn’t have fit as well on that record. The followup EP, Hands of Glory, has a decidedly western slant to it, featuring Appalachian fiddle more strongly than the lush and soaring violin of the album released earlier this year.

‘Three White Horses’ is an absolutely gorgeous opener, and has the sound of a deeply intimate and personal song. The lyrics are open to interpretation, which is often the case with Bird’s music, and what really matters is that the sounds create mental imagery and emotional cues with grace and ease. This will be a very popular record among synaesthetes.

Hands of Glory features less than subtle religious themes and a more than passing interest in mortality, getting a little bit darker in places than other songs from the Break It Yourself sessions, but it never feels depressing. Andrew Bird is able to explore these areas without becoming weighed down by them.

The EP features a few covers. ‘If I Needed’ you is a Townes Van Zandt tune made famous by versions performed by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, brought seamlessly into Bird’s realm. The cover songs are hard to distinguish from the originals, and in a couple of cases I found myself wondering if he had really written what sounded like classics. He did.

‘Railroad Bill’ is a true bluegrass tune, telling the tale of a train-riding vagrant provoking the law. Railroad Bill is a folk hero, sung of by artists such as Etta Baker, but while this is a song with great history there is also a tradition of seeing it change quite a bit from one interpretation to the next, much like the story of the man who inspired it. Whether he’s lighting his cigars with $10 bills, or rolling them up in with them, this is a folk classic and Bird’s version is stellar. The EP tells stories in a way not very common in modern music, which is not only the case with the cover songs.

In addition to this form of storytelling, there is also Bird’s more subtle and intentionally open to interpretation poetry. ‘Something Biblical’ weaves metaphor and meaning from a plea to the lord, a bad farm season, or lost love. ‘Orpheo’ uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a metaphor for the creative process. If you’re into finding the deeper meaning, and songs with the potential to grow over repeated listens, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of these eight tracks.

Andrew Bird can sometimes seem to struggle to find a unique quality for each song, but this release features a number of movements that change the tone of the record and offer new stylistic adventures, where the violin is fused with country music in more different ways than there are tracks on the album. The sounds are deceptively complex, and each song comes across as very simple despite the layered and diverse arrangements subtly playing beneath Bird’s soulful croon.

Hands of Glory ends with a long instrumental which builds off of the themes of the opening track, ‘Three White Horses’. Here on ‘Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses’ the listener is taken on a melancholy trot through one of Bird’s strongest musical landscapes. It begins to feel a bit sinister, but pulls around at the end and returns us to simpler times, as if we never left.

I think it’s a brilliant album, but a more measured review would be that it is at least worth listening to if you have even a passing interest in folk or bluegrass. If you’re a fan of Andrew Bird this release is one of his most successful in taking your ear on specific and carefully laid musical journeys.

Release Date: October 30, 2012
Image Courtesy of Mom & Pop Music

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