My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker

Chet Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929 on 23 December. So he and I share a birthday. I wish I also shared his musical talent and movie-idol looks, but oh well.

Baker was raised in a musical family. His father, Chesney Sr, had been a professional guitarist, but was forced by the Depression to take a regular job. His mother was a pianist who worked in a perfume factory. Their son gravitated to the trumpet. Not initially planning a life as a working musician, Baker left school at sixteen and joined the army. After two years in Germany between 1946 and 1948, Baker returned to the US, planning to study music theory, but he soon dropped out of school and re-enlisted, and was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco as a member of the Sixth Army Band.

During this time, he began playing at San Francisco jazz clubs, which led to dates with Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually a recording contract for his own quartet. In 1954, Baker released Chet Baker Sings, his first record featuring his vocals as well as his trumpet. Many jazz critics, while admiring his playing, gave him short shrift as a singer. They viewed his vocal recordings as a cynical move by his label to mould a gifted musician but marginal singer into a teen idol off the back of his James Dean-like image.

It’s true that Baker’s voice was unlike many heard within jazz up to that point in the music’s history. His voice was very small and intimate, with only the tiniest hint of vibrato. More troublingly for purists, he didn’t sing with a jazz sensibility. Knowing and working within his limitations as a vocalist, he played no games with the melody or phrasing of a tune, singing each song as one might sing a lullaby to a baby, or to a lover in the middle of the night. His own lack of experience as a singer is foregrounded: when he reaches the big note (“stay, funny Valentine, stay“), Baker hits it, but seems somewhat surprised, and lets it trail off where a confident singer would have held it and added vibrato as a flourish.

My Funny Valentine has been recorded by basically every singer who has ever worked in jazz or vocal music. There are classic versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, underappreciated recordings by Matt Monro and Johnny Mathis (anticipating no one so much as Jeff Buckley) and head-scratchers by Seal and Nico. Baker’s may still be the definitive version, though. Its vulnerability, partly born from Baker’s lack of experience as a singer, partly just a function of who he was, makes it utterly unlike the assured versions by Frank and Ella, but all the better for it.

Baker’s story, unfortunately, is not a particularly happy one. He began taking heroin in the early 1950s, which led him into some unfortunate places. In 1966, a drug deal he was trying to make went wrong and he received a severe beating from the dealer. Several of his teeth were knocked out, ruining his embouchure and leaving him needing dentures and forcing him to learn a new technique – more or less from a beginner’s level – in order to play at all. Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, Baker was again a working jazz musician, but now working and living almost exclusively in Europe.

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Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

10 more of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented once again without comment or context, 10 more magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

“Sure, he’s a jolly roger, until he answers for his crimes”
My Rival (Gaucho)

A tower room at Eden Roc, his golf at noon for free/Brooklyn owes the charmer under me
Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Watch the sun go brown/Smoking cobalt cigarettes
King of the World (Countdown to Ecstasy)

I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
Deacon Blues (Aja)

She takes the taxi to the good hotel/Bon marché as far as she can tell
Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)

Alan owns a chain of Steamer Heavens/And Barry is the software king
What a Shame About Me (Two Against Nature)

Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go/I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said “oh no, Guadalajara won’t do”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)

When Black Friday comes I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook/Gonna strike all the big red words from my little black book
Black Friday (Katy Lied)

You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later/Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
Everything You Did (The Royal Scam)

Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for some more killer suggestions.

Things We Lost in the Fire; the Masters Lost in 2008 Universal Backlot Fire

There is no commercial analogue playback format that is capable of reproducing the sonic quality of an analogue master. Unless you’re into storing and playing back your digital music as 24 bit WAV files at a sampling rate of 192kHz, there’s no way to come close in the digital realm, either (and how close 24 bit/192kHz actually gets to accurately representing the soundwaves captured, well, that’s a huge can of worms it’s better not to open right now as it’s a side issue).

Whether held on 2-inch analogue tape, or 1-inch, or as digital files on a hard drive, masters are the recording, from which all commercially released mixes of a song are derived. They are the primary source. Let’s say it again: the masters are the recording.

It’s only when we grasp this that we can understand what was lost in the fire on the Universal backlot in 2008, the full details of which have apparently been something of an open secret within the industry but are only now being reported to a wider public thanks to Jody Rosen’s excellent piece for the New York Times Magazine.

In 2008, a fire swept through the backlot, destroying several iconic sets (the New York skyline, the town square from Back to the Future and more) and swiftly consuming a building known to Universal employees as the video vault. That would have been bad enough, but the vault also contained a large store of audio masters. Rosen itemises what has been lost:

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. The tape masters for Billie Holiday’s Decca catalog were most likely lost in total. The Decca masters also included recordings by such greats as Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five and Patsy Cline.

Virtually all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost in the fire. Most of John Coltrane’s Impulse masters were lost, as were masters for treasured Impulse releases by Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz greats. Also apparently destroyed were the masters for dozens of canonical hit singles, including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley/I’m A Man,” Etta James’s “At Last,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

[Also probably lost in the fire were] recordings by Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, Sammy Davis Jr., Les Paul, Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton, Burl Ives, the Weavers, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bobby (Blue) Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner, the Four Tops, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Al Green, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Don Henley, Aerosmith, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Barry White, Patti LaBelle, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Sting, George Strait, Steve Earle, R.E.M., Janet Jackson, Eric B. and Rakim, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Sonic Youth, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Roots.

I’ve quoted from Rosen at length as it’s only when we see his lists written down that we begin to grasp the full extent of what was lost.

Why does this matter so much?

Two reasons: firstly, session reels contain sessions, not just the final take of a song and its attendant overdubs. Every time you buy an expanded edition of a record with alternate takes and unreleased songs, someone has been going through the archive to source that material. Who knows how many incredible alternate tales of canonical recordings we now have no chance to discover in future, how many stunning outtakes? You may think, well, we still have the released records, and that’s right, we do. But I’ve been delighted by too many work-in-progress versions and rough mixes and outtakes in my lifetime to be cavalier about what may have gone up in smoke.

Just yesterday, I listened to some of the material that Radiohead have made available from Thom Yorke’s leaked Minidisc archive from the OK Computer sessions. Within 10 minutes of the first disc starting, there is an astonishing early version of Airbag – a much looser, live-sounding take with Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway playing very different parts to those that made it to the album. What burned in the fire are the millions of potential instances of the delight I took from hearing that kind of audio snapshot of a song’s development.

But that’s not all. As I said up top, commercial playback formats lag a long way behind both analogue and digital masters in terms of the sonic quality. Neither vinyl nor any commercially widespread digital standard get close to the 24bit 44.1kHz masters of the recordings I make, let alone a 2-inch 24-track analogue master made by a good engineer in a world-class studio.

While new, higher-resolution digital formats are becoming a little more widespread among listeners, we have lost the ability to go back to the master tapes to create higher-res digital masters. You can’t simply take a CD and upsample it – you can’t put back what wasn’t captured in the first place. You need the masters. This is before we begin to factor in all the “audiophile” vinyl releases sourced from copies of the master or even the CD mixes. That’s why many of us prize the expanded/remixed/remastered editions of catalogue releases. Going back to the source is the only way you can improve on older-generation transfers made in a hurry on inferior equipment, as was the case for the first CD releases of the majority of heritage artists.

My apologies to Rosen for stealing his metaphor but it’s the best way to explain the issue. Listening to a vinyl record or a CD or an MP3 is like looking at a print of a great work of art. Some formats get closer to capturing the true experience of seeing the artwork, but there’s always a gap between the two. What burned in that fire were the paintings, not the prints.

The prints we still have, the paintings are lost for ever. And until yesterday, most of us didn’t know what we’d lost.

In a Free Land – Hüsker Dü

When I was around 15 or 16, in 1997 and 1998, I was constantly on the lookout for records by bands I’d read about and never heard. I’d read whatever American guitar magazines I could get my hands on (never passing a newsagent when I was out cycling around town without going in to see what they had) and any book about rock music in any of the libraries in the borough. Through the interviews I read in guitar magazines and books, I learned about Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr, the Minutemen, as well as a host of big-in-the-US acts that never made it over here.

One article in one of these magazines (a sort-of history of alternative rock that I really wish I’d kept. Talk about a time capsule!) was a retrospective of the Minneapolis music scene in the 1980s, which is where I found out all about Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum*. So when I saw an expanded edition of Hüsker Dü’s debut studio album, Everything Falls Apart, in Southend Library, I picked it up right away, barely pausing to ask how such an aggressive, low-budget artefact ended up in a public library, 4000 miles from where it was released on the band’s own label in 1982, when I was less than a year old. Frankly, I still don’t know who on earth was acquiring the records for Essex Libraries’ CD catalogue, but I’m mighty glad that said catalogue included Hüsker Dü.

Everything Falls Apart is a hardcore album, with several songs less than a minute long, and a total running time of around 25 minutes. So the label in charge of the reissue, Rhino, filled it out with the band’s early 7-inch singles and B-sides. One of which was In a Free Land, a track that hinted at what the band would go on to do as a more focused melodic force, rather than three guys playing so fast and screaming so hard the music was a barely coherent blur.

Hardcore was by its very nature political. All the bands were anti-government, some out of leftist convictions (they were appalled the country was now run by Reagan), some because of anarchist sympathies. In a Free Land, a rant against the education system and the wider society that it serves, was more in tune with the latter strain of hardcore (the hard-to-hear last line of the verse is “The only freedom worth fighting for is what you think”). Mould would revisit some of these themes later in his work (as on Copper Blue‘s The Slim, Mould’s response to losing someone to Aids), but his solo songs and those he recorded with Sugar were on the whole more concerned with his emotional life than the ones he wrote for Hüsker Dü.

In a Free Land, like Grant Hart’s Turn on the News from Zen Arcade, exists in a strange state. Familiar only to Hüsker diehards, it should be a standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it would be. So it was an enormous treat when I saw Mould play the Electric Ballroom in Camden a couple of months ago that In a Free Land was one of the Hüsker Dü songs he performed that night, alongside New Day Rising, Makes No Sense at All, I Apologise and Never Talking to You Again. It deserves its place in that elevated company.

In a Free Land

*Actually, I knew Soul Asylum via Runaway Train and owned Grave Dancers Union already, but had no idea they’d once been a hardcore band mentored and produced by Bob Mould.

My Finest Work Yet – Andrew Bird

The title of his latest album is no doubt a winking provocation, but perhaps Andrew Bird is right.

Obvious things out of the way first: it’s his best-sounding record yet. OK, it has the usual contemporary unsubtle mastering job that ensures My Finest Work Yet is several times louder than the jazz records from which it takes its sonic inspiration. However, the small-band arrangements and Rudy Van Gelder-inspired recording techniques Bird and his producer Paul Butler favoured for the recording sessions (the band tracking live together in a big room with no separation), give the songs that most precious and rare commodity in all forms of recorded music these days: space. Luxurious acres of it.

So, frankly, Bird had me on his side from the moment he premiered Bloodless, the album’s second track. Its glorious drum sound, fat but not overpowering, and gorgeous piano tone quite overruled any concerns I had about Bird building his song around the hook “it’s an uncivil war” – a sentiment that, while a decent summation of today’s political landscape, is not exactly trippingly on the tongue. The effectiveness of a pun is somewhat diminished when the shape of the melody barely gives you enough time to enunciate the syllable upon which the pun depends.

We’ve started, then, with the second of our obvious things. Bird is a words guy of long standing. But when you make lyrics and your delivery of them the focus of your music, you encourage your listener to nitpick. Bird is a far more imaginative and risk-taking lyricist than 95% of songwriters, and he’s very good. Brilliant at times, in fact. The first verse of Sisyphus is ingenious but also funny:

Sisyphus peered into the mist
A stone’s throw from the precipice, paused.
Did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist?
Did he raise both fists and say, “To hell with this”, and just let the rock roll?

But in pushing himself so hard, Bird is also apt to fall over himself. When things go wrong, as on the second verse of Sisyphus (a song which I should say I do like enormously), the result is a pile-up of contorted polysyllables barely contained within the metre and stressed in the wrong places, with – more important – a tune you can’t hum:

I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god, I’m a lightning rod
History forgets the moderates
For those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn
You know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice, yeah

I’m enough of a stick in the mud to find this a problem. Sure, personal taste and blah, blah, blah, but if you value economy and precision, Bird may infuriate as much as he delights.

Fortunately, lyrics aren’t the only component in pop music, and musically Bird is rarely less than superb. If you’re unfamiliar with him, Andrew Bird is a singer-songwriter who plays 5-string violin and guitar, but is principally a violinist making frequent use of loops of his violin playing within a live-band context, often pizzicato (ie plucked) melodies, rather than bowed lines. He’s also a champion whistler, with an enviable controlled vibrato, and a great sense of when to deploy his whistling chops to create instrumental hooks. Consequently, his music is pretty much a one-of-a-kind affair. As much as he shares kinship with some of the Largo crowd – Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple – he sounds little like any of them.

So, some reservations about Bird’s more outlandish lyrics (which I wanted to get out the way early) aside, My Finest Work Yet starts very strongly. Sisyphus and Bloodless are definite album highlights.

Third track Olympians spins its wheels a little, but the album hits what may be its highest point with fourth song Cracking Codes. A sparse, piano-led ballad, it builds patiently over the course of a vocal verse, a bridge and a second instrumental verse in which the piano carries the main melody while Bird whistles a counter-melody, to its climax, in which Bird’s voice is harmonised by bandmate Alan Hampton and a guesting Madison Cunningham. The blend of the three voices gives me chills.

Here’s a live version of Cracking Codes.

Fallorun, by contrast, is almost shockingly conventional indie rock by Bird’s standards. It even starts with some guitar feedback. It does give drummer Ted Poor a chance to play two and four at a moderate-fast tempo, a rarity for him within Andrew Bird’s music, and he seems happy to go at it. The chorus melody is fine, but it’s one of those songs that yields all the pleasures it can offer in half a dozen plays, and it hasn’t kept me coming back like Sisyphus, Bloodless and Cracking Codes have.

After a free-time intro, the main violin melody of Archipelago is as warm and comforting as a hug. Lyrically, though, it’s another song that seems to address the polarised political climate (“We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll/When our enemies are what make us whole. Listen to me: no more excuses, no more apathy. This ain’t no archipelago, no remote atoll”). The song’s humanity – wisdom, even – ensure that the big ending, in which the backing vocals follow Bird’s in a call-and-response fashion, feels earned rather than by the numbers.

Proxy War begins with a funky side-stick drum intro, over which bass and piano are joined by layers of Bird’s violin and (I think) a distorted guitar – an arrangement that nicely mimics an R&B horn section. The chorus switches to 7/4 time and Poor gets to play some cool fills. One of the least lyrically dense tracks on the album, it works as a mood lightener, and offers a sort sideways reminder that long ago Andrew Bird began his career playing violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Manifest – Bird at his most pastoral – reminds me strongly of Laura Veirs in its west coast setting, G major chord sequence and the string arrangement. I doubt it’s deliberate, but the resemblance is marked. It’s not structurally knotty or lyrically complex compared to other Bird songs, but it’s another one of the album’s high points for me: a lovely, unhurried song.

Don the Struggle begins like Bird chanelling Benny & the Jets. It’s thudding, stompy pulse eventually gives way to a double-time 7/4 section with Bird’s vocal exactly following the beats. While it was no doubt a struggle to write a lyric to fit the metre, he makes it sound surprisingly natural. As tension and release, the song works effectively, but it’s the tension part that keeps me coming back. Bird got it right, I think, by keeping the 7/4 part a brief mid-song interlude and having the song end with his dramatic violin solo over the 4/4 sequence.

The album ends with Bellevue Bridge Club. Its verse – built on a rudimentary drum pattern and a basic two-chord sequence strummed on electric guitar, with Bird playing his 5-string violin in its viola range – can’t help but sound like a Velvet Underground pastiche, which ordinarily would not do anything for me at all. Fortunately, after about a minute, Bird quits his Lou Reed impression, Poor locates his hi-hat, the song acquires a groove and the harmonies (with Madison Cunningham again) take the song somewhere far satisfying. It’s a fine end to a fine album.

Over the course of a dozen solo records, Bird’s music has become a little less unconventional than it was at the beginning of his career, with more songs that follow standard pop chord sequences and structures. This has had the tendency to make his records more cohesive and consistent, and to be honest, more to my taste. I’m sure he’s lost fans along the way, too – it’s impossible for a songwriter to grow in any direction while pleasing everyone who was into their work at the start. So, as I said up top, calling his album My Finest Work Yet is a good-humoured provocation. He might be right, though: it’s tighter than 2016’s Are You Serious, his voice gets better with every record, the playing is superlative and the sonics, at least by modern standards, are impeccable.

I’m seeing him at the Barbican next week, with Cunningham in support, and I can’t wait.