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“When the everyday becomes incredulous to you”: This is how heavily hyphenated Chicagoan Andrew Birdyou know, your typical singer-songwriter-philosopher-violinist-mando-stratistdescribes the going-going-gone concept behind his new album, The Swimming Hour. For some, this moment occurs during the half-baked predawn, when your candy-coated dreams are fiendishly devoured by your ultrashitty realityand all you’re left with is the ambiguous aftertaste of hope. For others, the Swimming Hour is that sepia-toned sliver between day and night, that otherworldly gloaming that lets you know, at the tingly base of your brain, that something wicked, for better or worse, this way comes. And no matter how well-grounded we (think we) might be, the Swimming Hour eventually comes for all of us. It’s a trippy idea, yeslike déjà vu with consequencesbut deep-thinker Bird is, if nothing else, a really trippy guy.
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After years of wielding his wicked violin backing up the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bird finally corralled his own throwback crew (that would be the Bowl of Fire) and released two critically lauded albums, Thrills (1998) and Oh! The Grandeur (1999), both of which are loaded with squawky antique gypsy jazzand both of which are, critically lauded or not, pretty lousy to these ears, with nary a chummy Bourbon Street shuffle or flapper-friendly backbeat to be found. But it was sometime in the year 2000, while Bird (presumably sober) was walking through a roughed-up neighborhood in his native Windy Cityand heavily pondering the direction for his next albumwhen things started to get a little funky: “Everything got really strange-feeling,” he says. “Everything became really slow.”
Cue Rod Serling: Bird had entered…the Swimming Hour.
His noggin awash with shiny new thoughts, Bird’s resulting musical output was not his usual fiendish blend of Paganini-meets-Preservation Hall but something else entirely: Memphis-flavored garage rock, with slinky keyboards and bluesy guitars filling the gaps, and his violin, which once screeched like a pained Crescent City ghoul, driving each tune with Charlie Daniels-sized arena-rock fury. Birdwho grew up on classical and is admittedly clueless about pop lifeblissfully went with this new groove. It was a risky move, but hey, you just don’t screw with the Swimming Hour.
Good thing, too: The final result of Bird’s out-of-mind experience is a breathtakingand, to be honest, completely unexpectedpop spectacle. Produced by Mike Napolitano, who’s worked with Blind Melon, the Neville Brothers, and the aforementioned Zippers, The Swimming Hour’s 13 songs blend beautifully absurdist lyrics about the album’s titular phenomenon with Southern-fried soul, C&W twang, and, for those few folks who actually enjoyed Bird’s last two albums, a sugary side dish of ragtime swing.
The album commences with a playful portal to Bird’s particular twilight zonean uneasy wall of static followed by a slow series of melancholic guitar plucksthen quickly erupts into the raucous “Two Way Action,” with the reinvented violin laying down a rugged Duane Eddy riff, and Bird and Nora O’Connor, a fellow Chicago native, harmonizing about some odd, existential travel plans: “I’ve been driving all night/Bathing in fluorescent light/Of a western Tennessee gas station/With a pack of two way action/I’m subsisting on a fraction/And I close my eyes and pretend/I’m on vacation.” (Given Bird’s rather deadpan singing style, O’Connor, with her sweet, earnest delivery and octave-scaling pipes, is both a brilliant addition to the band and a major reason why the album is such a success.)
The Stax-sponsored road trip keeps going on song No. 2, “Core and Rind,” a greasy ode to Booker T. & the MGs, with Pat Sansone’s keyboard creeping through the tune like the Big Bad Wolf with his YKK down. Heading even farther South, sprawling blues numbers “Fatal Flower Garden” and “Satisfied” eventually break down into guitar-drunk Allmansesque jams. And “How Indiscreet” is a flat-out, fuzz-boxed burner, about as uncharacteristic as anything Bird has ever done and fully intended to wake the neighborhood.
But The Swimming Hour’s two best tracks puckishly highlight Bird’s love affair with the surreal: “11:11” starts with a weepy string section swiped from “A Day in the Life,” then becomes a stripped-down, sad-eyed torcher, and then lets it all hang out as a percussion-driven duetBird and O’Connor againabout (and I’m kinda guessing here) a wealthy man drinking a cup of milk and staring out his window at a homeless woman drinking a cup of gin. By the time the song finishes, someone with a beverage might be dead (“So many people hold a cup/So many die drinking milk in front of a window….Don’t hold a cup in any season”), and Bird and O’Connor have fallen in love.
The album’s closer, “Dear Old Greenland,” plays like Willy Wonka’s rendition of “That’s Life.” As O’Connor and backup singer Kelly Hogan chirp away with Andrews Sisters flair, Bird croons like a suicidal Elvis imitator over syrupy “Theme From A Summer Place” strings: “Friends, Greenland is a place where souls go to dry out/It is a vast and terrifying place of ice fields and tundra/Bereft of fire and in the horror of its imposing irrelevance/There is a peace/The peace of pain/The peace of nothing.” It’s funny, it’s creepy, and it’s the best song the Monochrome Set never made. And, trust me, it works.
It may not even be May yet, but with The Swimming Hour, the enigmatic, innovative Bird has already created one of the most enlightening, exciting, and downright bizarre soundtracks of the summer. And don’t worry if you haven’t understood a single goddamn thing you just read here. You will in time, my friends. You will. CP