Andrew Bird: like a songbird

The songwriter has many talents, but have you heard him whistle?

There is plenty to be said of Illinois songwriter Andrew Bird’s prodigious talents as a multi-instrumentalist, and as a composer whose detailed and lush arrangements do as much to propel his songs as their florid language and demure charm. Like Jens Lekman or The Decemberists, Bird’s music is as comfortable in its formality and braininess as Eddie Vedder is in flannel. But those are not the characteristics that flush the cheeks of Bird’s champions.

No, those introducing the uninitiated to Bird’s gentle, ornate chamber pop are more likely to do as I am here, acknowledge Bird’s most obvious gifts and usurp them with an excited interjection: “Yeah, but have you heard the guy whistle?!”

One so enthused critic wrote for, “Andrew Bird’s whistle could calm tense hostage situations.”

When Andrew Bird whistles, charging rhinos stop and hug. Ryan Seacrest realizes how obscenely overpaid he is and gives money to charity, children, and talented people. That’s Andrew Bird’s power.

Yes, Andrew Bird’s whistling is the shining diamond embedded in the gold band of song he’s been developing since he played a sideman’s role for the N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ’90s. And before he turned his career toward pop, he was a classically-trained violinist whose predilection for pop’s looseness eventually usurped his conservatory formalism.

“I haven’t read a lick of music in 15 years,” he says. “I don’t play with people who need chord charts. I don’t like to get too conceptual. I just like to keep it kind of free flowing and more of an oral tradition than anything.”

Still, he was wary at first of his whistling as a stand-in for something more traditional, something that lent itself better to transcription; he was suspicious, he says, of something that came so easily. “It’s just something to do casually when you’re washing the dishes or something.”

That, for the interest of Andrew Bird trivia collectors, is still how he writes his songs: By looping melodic phrases on his violin, playing them loud enough to carry throughout his rural Illinois home and singing — or whistling — overtop until something clicks.

But until the past couple years, by his own admission, Bird’s whistling was a placeholder, or a way to carry a melody while his hands were occupied with another instrument. It wasn’t until he began to tour solo and use his whistle as another melodic layer that he really noticed how it cut through his violin/voice/guitar arrangements. “When you whistle on top of that, it’s almost like an operatic kind of sound,” he says. “It’s more like an ecstatic thing.” Suddenly, the audience was paying closer attention.

His new album, January’s Noble Beast, showcases the clarion call of crystalline clarity and fluidity that is his whistle, as much as it displays Bird’s linguistic aerobics; lush, complex arrangements; and casual grace.

In a move he compares to Otis Redding’s whistle on “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — “just whistling to myself,” he says — opening cut and lead single “Oh No” finds Bird interjecting his whistle into classicist pop that would feel at home beside a golden Les Paul and Mary Ford single. Elsewhere, the whistle adds dynamic texture to songs such as the glitchy, Radiohead-esque “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” in which the whistle scurries like a spectre, trembling like a Theremin, but feeling eerily human instead of mechanical.

That his whistle is such a versatile instrument only evidences the eclecticism Bird puts into every sound he layers into his richly woven songs. His fans know this, though. They know that as a songwriter and composer he’s good — even great, but there’s that one element that pushes Bird’s work above and beyond, and it’s the same element that elicits that awed tone when asking, enthusiastically, “Have you heard him whistle?”

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