Album Review: Andrew Bird’s “Hands of Glory”

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As witnessed on the Oct. 30 edition of The Late Show with David Letterman, Andrew Bird is a folkie at heart. 

Bird, along with guests Tift Merritt and upright bassist Alan Hampton, huddled around a single microphone, old-fashioned bluegrass-style, and performed the often-covered Townes Van Zandt classic "If I Needed You" to an empty television studio (thanks to Hurricane Sandy).

That traditional approach and particular song are both featured on Bird's most recent recording, Hands of Glory, released the day of the Letterman performance.

The new eight-song EP is a companion project to his critically acclaimed album, Break It Yourself, that came out just six months ago.

One thing that can be said about the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is that he's no slacker. He tours constantly, most often as a solo artist, and delivers a new recording about once a year. 

It's amazing how Bird, his band and his recording team used the single-mic technique, an approach that can be gimmicky and sometimes compromising, to their advantage. 

The sound quality of the recording is beautiful, and the playing, which because of the usual restrictions of recording live and in one take, is energetic and inspired.

It seems that Bird, who often plays with loops, layers and samples, enjoyed simply playing and singing with a live band.

The three most country-folk sounding tracks on the recording are the Van Zandt number and the traditional song "Railroad Bill," both featuring Bird as an accomplished fiddler, and a reverb-drenched cover of the Handsome family's apocalyptic "When the Helicopters Come."

Many contemporary albums often sound like single songs thrown together for marketing purposes rather than a cohesive collection, as in the bygone days of the LP. 

Because of the nature of the recording, the stripped-down production, the country-fied content and the fact that the opening track, "Three White Horses," is bookended by a lengthy reprise, Hands of Glory hangs together from beginning to end.

Bird not only introduces a handful of new songs but also reinterprets material from Break It Yourself. Those familiar with that album will appreciate his brilliant reworking of "Orpheo Looks Back," simply entitled "Orpheo," a stripped-down reconstruction featuring a sparse guitar backup to Bird's plaintive violin and voice.

These eight tracks are fine additions to Andrew Bird's ever-growing musical catalog.