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Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird has written one of the best-crafted songs of the year for his fourth album, Weather Systems. As "Lull" begins, the pep of brushes on a snare and the simple picking of guitar and violin strings set an ironic stage for the underwhelmed singer, who's too socked into what he's admitting to breathe: "Being alone, it can be quite romantic/like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic/a fantastic voyage to parts unknown/going to depths where the sun's never shone/and I fascinate myself/when I'm all alone."

The song is smart -- delivered all in one breath and heavy-lipped, as if Bird's mouth were reluctant to swell the next verse: "I'm all for moderation/but sometimes, it seems/moderation itself can be a kind of extreme/so I joined the congregation/I joined the softball team/I waited for more confirmation..." The observation about moderation being its own extreme expresses a sophistication eloquently juxtaposed by the simplicity of the music. Bird opens the album with a precise warbling whistle solo over the quick back-and-forth shavings of violin strings; he is whistling as the song's protagonist is out and about in the fields of Illinois, moved by the "darkness and sadness" of joy.

At a time when so many musicians are experimenting with the same tubes and burners, Bird enjoys the distinction of sounding distinct -- even if his voice is part Rufus Wainwright, part Jeff Buckley. His songs have genuine drama to them; the instrumental introduction to the title track is reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. Likewise, the strings of violins creep uneasily on "I" toward some overwhelming question -- "What next?"

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