Andrew Bird Pays Tribute To The Handsome Family

On his new album, the singer, songwriter and violinist Andrew Bird didn't get too hung up on what was his and what was someone else's. As it happens, it was all someone else's, in a sense, because the entire album, "Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of …," is Bird covering songs written by the Handsome Family. But it was all Bird singing and playing the tunes with his band, making an intimate album, recorded in Bird's LA apartment, and giving their own haunted and skeletal take on the Handsome Family tunes. Bird and his band, the Hands of Glory, play The Klein in Bridgeport on Friday, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. Lucius, and Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition share the bill.

The Handsome Family are a husband-and-wife duo, Brett and Rennie Sparks, that have been making records for 20 years. Bird, 40, has been covering Handsome Family numbers for years, going back to his early days on stage, and he's toured with the group as well. He's started to feel like he basically inhabits their sometimes gothic Americana songs.

"Over the years, I've done [Handsome Family songs] so much - so much live, and, again, putting them through my own process," says Bird who spoke with CTNow by phone from his home. "The distinction between their songs and my songs is not very clear."

Consumers might even mistake the album for a record of new songs by Bird, and that's fine with the singer, too. There's nothing blatantly announcing that these are Handsome Family songs. "It's not hidden, it's just not plastered on the cover," says Bird. At the Bridgeport show Bird will play several songs from the Handsome Family record as well as plenty of his original material.

Bird says he liked the idea of a listener who maybe wasn't familiar with his work, or who didn't know the Handsome Family stumbling on the record. What motivated Bird to record an entire album of Handsome Family material was just the urge to hold up the material and say "look how beautiful" the songs are. As a songwriter, though, Bird approaches the songs as a lesson in storytelling, melodicism and compression.

"I learn one of their songs every six months just as an exercise to remind myself what to strive for in my own writing," he says. "You have your touchstone artists that you always check in with to remind yourself to be musical — the Handsome Family have always been that for me."

Identity is fluid. Our sense of who we are and others' sense of the same can shift over time or in context. And creativity can help blur the lines, nudging us to feel our way into other people's perspectives. For some, songwriting encourages that blending of the universal and the personal. Sometimes you might feel like you're channeling someone else's voice and experience when you sit down to write a song. It might not necessarily reflect your own perspective, but it's still real or true, perhaps. Likewise, maybe you sit at the piano or with the guitar and you play and sing someone else's song, doing it so much and with such a focus that you start to feel like it might as well be your own.

Fans of Bird will probably recognize the difference, though. Bird's own songs, particularly the older ones, are a little more stuffed with wordplay, with lyrics that twist around like puzzles, where the meaning and sound, the crunch of the consonants, the pleasant murk of Latin roots, the balance of polysyllables, all play into his word choices. Look at some of his song titles: "Imitosis," "Plasticities," "Cataracts," "Nomenclature." Sometimes Bird seems downright word drunk, and he's as likely to throw in a quirky salsa groove as he is to hold fast to any indie-rock medium-speed tempo template.

For the new record, everything is more pared back. The songs have sweet and aching vocal harmonies provided by Tift Merritt. But for a relatively simple configuration — guitar, violin, bass, vocals, drums — Bird has a lot of sonic tricks at his disposal: he can whistle with pure and forceful tone, and he can also pluck or strum or tease out haunting "fingered" harmonics from his violin, as he does on "Far From Any Road."

"I don't want to distract from the writing," says Bird with regard to what he calls his no-frills "anti-production aesthetic."

The songs are the centerpiece here. The lyrics are rich with references to the elements — the sun, the moon, rivers, mud and plants. Light and shadow, drinking and death, dust and wind, bones and blood fill out these slightly spooky and enigmatic tales.

"These songs, no matter how twisted and dark they are, at the same time they're really comforting," says Bird.

ANDREW BIRD & THE HANDS OF GLORY play The Klein Memorial Auditorium, 910 Fairfield Ave., in Bridgeport on Friday, July 11, at 7:30 p.m. Lucius, and Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition share the bill. For more information call 800-424-0160, or visit theklein.org or manicproductions.org