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Andrew Bird's Bowl Of Fire: The Swimming Hour

Album: The Swimming Hour
Label: Rykodisc

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As willfully eclectic as Andrew Bird's first two outings with Bowl Of Fire were, it seemed like Bird was backing himself into a corner as just another eccentric genre-hopper. But he's an even stranger player than the odd "eccentric" label might indicate, sticking to the under-explored surprises of esoteric folk music, Americana, and old vocal jazz, but adding a bizarre sense of humor to the creative fray. Bird's music sounds like something that might turn up on a confusingly undated, dusty old 78, but he doesn't appear willing to play the part of quirkmaster much longer. In fact, his new The Swimming Hour so effectively embraces pop in all its forms that it's hard to fathom how he went from such left-field extremes to such a gloriously accessible stylistic center stage. Sure, the usual character pervades the disc. Unexpected offerings like the "Rawhide"-inspired "Way Out West" and "Dear Old Greenland" (a bit of old-school R&B by way of the nuthouse, featuring a spoken-word shout-out to that "vast and terrifying place of ice fields and tundra") pop up just where, in Bird's case, they might be expected. But "Two Way Action" is a better and catchier pop song than anything Beck has managed lately, while "11:11" coasts along on beauty and grandeur akin to the best orchestral Beatles, or at least David Byrne. All the while, Bird's faultless Bowl Of Fire (now including fellow singer Nora O'Connor) lends unwavering support to his unique vision and outstanding fiddling, whether during hectic blues explosions ("Satisfied," "How Indiscreet") or in the soaring but subtle "Fatal Flower Garden," which turns out to be a twisted fairy tale worthy of Edward Gorey. Bird must be some sort of genius to see his vision executed just right, which would probably be more impressive if there were even one other artist to whom he could be compared.