Review Summary: Ladies and gentlemen: Professor Bird
Unfortunately hidden in the back end of Andrew Bird’s (progressively extensive) catalogue, The Swimming Hour
shows a different side of the violinist/singer/whistler extraordinaire. Fresh off his stint with the excellent Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bird remains in that revivalist mindset, but unlike his former band, he doesn’t stick to a neo-swing revival. That’s there too, but The Swimming Hour
more than anything acts as a history book of American musical movements. So enter Doctor Bird, Phd. in American Folk Music. Here he teaches of the always odd genre of rockabilly in “Core and Rind”. And here, a study of waltzes with “Dear Old Greenland”. He even delves into the music of the Golden Era of Hollywood with “Waiting to Talk,” which might as well be sung by Bing Crosby himself. He rolls through Dixieland jazz, film-noir, blues, Appalachian folk, classical, garage rock, you name it. The Swimming Hour
is much like a Norton Anthology of American Musical Trends, sans the vaguely pretentious footnotes and Stephen Greenblatt. But this is not purely an academic lesson.
No, no. Mr. Bird is that type of professor who uses his lectures as a performance, with winks and nods to the audience and jokes abound. Everybody loves the professor who makes awkwardly inappropriate jokes. Andrew Bird is like that popular professor who usually teaches Popular Culture (except his lessons are infinitely more valuable). In doing so he simultaneously manages to search out his own voice. It’s a voice he would begin to perfect with The Mysterious Production of Eggs
. The voice that marries his virtuoso capabilities with the violin (seriously that work on “Case in Point” is incredible), his very subdued yet tuneful singing, and other-worldly whistling ability. He doesn’t simply go through a selection of genre-hopping set pieces. He makes these songs his own. These sound like Andrew Bird versions of old genres, not Andrew Bird playing old genres. The difference is slight but important. So the appeal of The Swimming Hour
is ultimately two-fold. Firstly, this is an excellent collection of songs by an excellent musician. Second, it shapes an interesting narrative for fans of Bird that contrasts where he is now, with where he came from. For these reasons and more, The Swimming Hour
is an oft overlooked gem that deserves your attention.