After the detour of the country-oriented Handsome Family cover album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... (2014), Andrew Bird has continued down the path of folk-pop that he leaned into with Are You Serious (2016). My Finest Work Yet (2019) is sonically similar, but lyrically, Bird took a new turn into the explicitly political. Although the title might just be another joke based on the self-absorbed boasting of his primary target, it's actually rather fitting: it is a well-crafted album that covers difficult topics with finesse and without getting bogged down by their weight.
Artist: Andrew Bird
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 19 June 2019
Opening Act: Madison Cunningham
01. Archipelago [instrumental]
01. Archipelago [instrumental]
05. Cracking Codes
08. Truth Lies Low
09. Roma Fade
11. Proxy War
13. Don The Struggle
14. Bellevue Bridge Club
15. Give It Away [one mic]
16. Orpheo Looks Back [one mic]
17. Three White Horses
19. Gentle on My Mind [one mic; John Hartford cover]
20. Pulaski at Night [one mic]
21. Tables and Chairs
Opening act Madison Cunningham was a fitting choice for the job, as she contributed vocals to Bird's latest album. She initially appeared alone with just her guitar and played impressive compositions of precise fingerwork paired with her well-trained voice. After two songs in that style, she brought out Alan Hampton on bass and Abraham Rounds on drums, both of whom also played on My Finest Work Yet. One song also featured keyboards from Jack Sherman. However, the blues-pop style of the full-band songs was somewhat less exciting and unusual. I still admired her vocal and guitar skill, but I preferred her unique technique when she was alone. That said, I appreciated that she tried both variations. The variety was enriching even if I wanted more of how she started.
When Andrew Bird came out, I was amused to see Cunningham return to her place on guitar and vocals alongside the other performers that had already backed her. Working double duty must be stressful, but it made for a special vibe. It felt like the musicians were friends and knew well how to work with each other. They opened with what sounded like an improvisational instrumental based around "Archipelago". In traditional Bird fashion, he looped his various violin parts to build a deep soundbed.
Thereafter, Bird dove into My Finest Work Yet in earnest, starting from the beginning and proceeding through the tracklisting. "Sisyphus" and "Bloodless" are both perfect examples of Bird's latest trend of matching careful pop songwriting with cleverly political lyrics. The former even featured an awesome joint solo in which Bird's whistling harmonized with Cunningham's wordless vocals.
After finishing the first half of the album, Bird announced a pause in the album flow for a few other tunes, which were his older favorite "Why?" and two of the better tracks from Are You Serious. The second half of the live rendition of the new album proceeded mostly predictably, although the doubled solo of "Proxy War" in which Bird's whistling was paired with Cunningham's guitar was particularly cool. The last three songs all featured Bird on a 12-string guitar, which he used for a bluesy version of the solo in "Manifest".
This gave way to more familiar territory for Bird. First he gathered the band around a single microphone for his preferred trick of the last several years. "Give It Away" appears to be his favorite song to do in that manner; he did it at both the last shows of his I saw. This version was particularly good, as Sherman took a harmonica solo and Hampton and Cunningham switched instruments. "Three White Horses" was performed in the normal band arrangement, but extended and enhanced with typical Bird looping for a particularly memorable rendition.
After finishing the set with "Capsized", one of the singles from Are You Serious, I expected that Bird might just call it a night. It was late and the venue was in a somewhat remote neighborhood. To my surprise, he came back for three more. "Gentle on My Mind" carried on Bird's trend of doing an old-timey cover around a single mic, but it was done as just a duet with Cunningham. The rest of the band joined for a one-mic version of "Pulaski at Night", and the final number was the classic "Tables and Chairs", which Bird said still seemed relevant and fresh despite being over ten years old.
Andrew Bird continues to surprise and delight. My Finest Work Yet is even better than Are You Serious and cements his move away from the country/folk of the preceding albums and the violin and loop-heavy indie rock before those. He still pulled out some of his looping tricks, but they were clearly less of the focus. Thankfully, his violin and whistling skills are still prime and he wasn't shy about showing them off. The full-album performance gimmick is getting old for me, but I appreciated that Bird at least broke it up with a few diversions in the middle. I was glad to see Hampton's nimble bass back in the fold, and his other collaborators were an even more interesting match than the last crew I saw. The energy of the whole evening was a bit dampened by uncharacteristic Berlin heat and humidity, but Bird hardly let that spoil the show.
Madison Cunningham: B
Andrew Bird: B+
My Finest Work Yet: A-
P.S. Thanks to Elaine and Pit!