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Andrew Bird
Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… James Skinner , July 7th, 2014 11:26

Andrew Bird's relationship with the music of friends and peers The Handsome Family is a long, happy one, stretching as far back as 2003's Weather Systems and his gorgeous version of 'Don't Be Scared'. 'When That Helicopter Comes' appeared on 2012's Hands Of Glory, while his contribution to the Red Hot charity compilation Dark Was The Night in 2009 was a take on the Albuquerque-based husband and wife duo's 'The Giant Of Illinois'. He has described the latter as a song which immediately caught his attention, in particular its suggestive lyric "The sky was a woman's arm."

"That's a typical line of theirs that is a little bit ambiguous and mysterious and awesome," he said in an interview with the Austin Chronicle. "Every time I sing that song I feel like I could sing it the rest of my life because I'll never quite know what it means, but it has such emotional heft to it."

It's interesting to hear Bird talk of emotional heft, as a previous criticism sometimes levelled at his music was that his virtuoso talent on the violin (not to mention a penchant for some tongue-twisting wordplay) resulted in something too ornate to have much of a visceral impact. (Indeed, my dad tired of watching him play the Green Man festival a few years ago on the grounds that his set was "too clever.") Those criticisms never really held much sway with me though, and they were all but vanquished by superb records like 2009's Noble Beast and 2012's Break It Yourself.

Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… is an entire album of Handsome Family covers, recorded with the Hands Of Glory outfit that solidified around the time of Break It Yourself and  provided its companion LP a title. It finds Bird in relaxed, pared-back mood: free from the pressure of writing lyrics - something he's professed to find more difficult than melodies - his sole aim here is to present the songs as best he can. In his own words, "to make people realise how good the material is."

And the material certainly is good. Brett and Rennie Sparks have been writing and performing their unique brand of Southern Gothic as The Handsome Family for 20 years now, in a career that has recently seen them gain wider attention following their 'Far From Any Road' being chosen as the theme song to this year's revelatory HBO series, True Detective. That tune, a perfect fit for a near-perfect show, encapsulates much of what The Handsome Family do so well, its sinister depiction of a cactus blooming replete with evocative, foreboding lyrics that hint at something far weightier than any mortal concerns. Their songs speak of damnation, apocalypse, murder and suicide against a blasted, mythological American backdrop, and not so much desperation in the face of these things, but resigned, weary acceptance.

It is an often cruel world The Handsome Family conjure via their lyrics, but one they conjure with pleasing deftness and lightness of touch. In that same interview with the Austin Chronicle, Bird elucidates the pair's style: "They do what the best John Prine song would do, which is distill some sort of emotional idea into a really dense couple of words. They're just really simple words, but there is a slight twist to them that makes you pay more attention, and almost every one of their songs does that."

The high esteem in which Bird holds this material is evidenced on the ten songs that make up the album. They are sensitive readings that find plenty of space in their composition, not least in the closing 'Far From Any Road (Be My Hand)' and the skeletal rendering of 'My Sister's Tiny Hands', wherein an affecting vocal performance from Bird lights up a tragic story of sibling loss. 'Frogs Singing' is a highlight, too; a sprightly take on 'Frogs' that finds unexpected joy in the song, Tift Merrit's harmonies coalescing beautifully with Bird's lead.

'The Giant Of Illinois' and 'Don't Be Scared' have both been re-recorded for this release, something which may irk those familiar with Bird's earlier versions, but it's a decision which makes total sense. The stripped-down, acoustic nature of the record is notable; none of the calypso flourishes or electronics that marked Break It Yourself are present, meaning it does come off a little overly sedate at first, but soon blossoms into something richer.

"These songs, no matter how twisted and dark they are, at the same time they're really comforting," said Bird in another recent interview. The comfort he draws from The Handsome Family's music is writ large throughout Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, a fantastic set of songs approached with a reverence that is never stifling, and one in which fans of either act will find plenty to love. (Newcomers might find a couple of sizeable discographies awaiting them after a few listens, too.)