For the Record: Hands of Glory

By Guest Contributor

Earlier this year this brilliant man released Break It Yourself, to which this Hands of Glory serves as a companion. Perhaps less experimental as 2010’s Useless Creatures, Hands features some of Bird’s least erratic vocals and neatest fiddling. He puts a delightful, atmospheric spin on songs by country and Americana artists such as The Carter Family and Townes Van Zandt. The nature of these inspirations brings a slightly more traditional format to each of Bird’s songs, which elevate the role of fiddle higher than previously heard.

“Three White Horses” introduces the album, and opens with an ethereal but simple plucked build-up reminiscent of Britain’s The xx. Bird’s signature whirring and trembling violin sounds step in among his musical texturing. On the other hand, another unique Bird element — whistling — takes a break in this album.

As usual, his lyrics are thoughtful but not convoluted, rife with images of nature that establish the autumnal tone of the album. Bird is known to express eccentric interpretations of the world. Even though I pay little attention to lyrics on first listen, Bird’s fascination with death, in the offbeat sense of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, projects from the very start of the album when, for instance, he emphasises, “You’ll need somebody when you come to die” and “The dead gonna wake and sing and roll their bones in the grass.” The latter line, from “When That Helicopter Comes,” completes the theme of the album that the natural elements started: the ghostly but wistful rustic environment drawn from the pastoral, apparently dusky location where his sound developed.

On the record he presents “Orpheo,” a modified version of “Orpheo Looks Back” from Break It Yourself. Ironically “Orpheo” relies on relatively bare acoustics and repetitive vocals, deviating from album’s overall folk/dance style that is foreshadowed by “Orpheo Looks Back.” I believe that Bird chose to re-work the song, not because it was such a hit, but simply for experimentation’s sake. Still,  the new version sounds far less experimental even though the album derives from jamming in a barn on the Mississippi.

The last track is not so playful. It brings together several simple elements with the utmost sophistication; each instrument has its long moment to shine, and Bird keeps the elements essentially individualized, eventually revisiting the three-word vocal chant that repeats “three white horses” Like the Americana covers and the revisited songs from his previous album this last track demonstrates Bird’s seamless grasp of musical patterns, through his ability to create singular works from the same basic melody. He is a poet in that sense.

All in all, Bird produced a rich album, especially for a companion, that really highlights his rural, weathered environment for the listener.  Like the majority of his work, it’s not catered towards the casual listener, particularly towards the end of the record.

Also, as the new columnist for For the Record I welcome anyone to contact me to discuss these albums, or just music in general!