Andrew Bird's clever lyrics and majestic, Jeff Buckley-esque vocals are so captivating that it's easy to lose sight of the more guitar-based instrumentation that sets his latest, "Armchair Apocrypha," apart from his earlier efforts. Bird's own contributions remain: his alluring violin is omnipresent, and his trademark whistle infuses a number of tracks without seeming forced or gimmicky.
But two instrumental tracks draw attention to this more robust sound: "Yawny at the Apocalypse" uses plaintive strings over a dreamlike ambient loop to capture the track's title, while the brief "The Supine" is an elegant orchestral introduction to the graceful melody of "Cataracts."
Bird manages to be clever without seeming smug; his look at historical conquest in the stellar "Scythian Empires" comments on the futility of empire building, with only the subtlest reference to the current war (a brief mention of "Halliburton attache cases"). The catchy "Imitosis" revises one of Bird's earlier songs ("I" from 2003's "Weather Systems") with a speedier delivery and a Latin-flavored beat, but his base message about the solitude of the human condition remains.
Like Bird, Joan Wasser creates stunning violin soundscapes. But with "Real Life," she showcases her soulful voice in addition to the instrumental skills she has honed over years playing in bands (the Dambuilders, Black Beetle) and supporting other musicians (Rufus Wainwright, Antony and the Johnsons). Antony joins Wasser on the angst-filled "I Defy," but "Feed the Light" shows that she's perfectly comfortable on own, with a pouty sultriness reminiscent of early Cat Power and lush, string-driven instrumentation.
-- Catherine P. Lewis