Chicago’s own Andrew Bird has proved himself many things over the years, but “stagnant” sure isn’t one of them. From his time as an honorary violinist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers up to his latest studio effort, “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…,” Bird has sculpted his artistic persona on the singular promise of forward momentum – the promise that, come hell or high water, he’s not one to find satisfaction just running through the motions. Sure, ever since launching his solo career in earnest with 2003’s “Weather Systems,” acoustic folk, indie sensibility and an ever adventurous attitude have come to consolidate the songwriter’s artistic core, but Bird has always found new permutations to keep listener’s engaged with his ever-expanding discography. Despite Bird’s remarkable penchant for reinvention, I’d be lying if I said “Echolocations: Canyon” didn’t surprise me. Slated as the first installment in a series of field recordings shaped by their self-titled environments, Bird’s latest album seems equally ambitious and preposterous, but eventually reveals itself as an interesting, if flawed, step forward.
Each of the album’s seven tracks was recorded within Utah’s Coyote Gulch, comprised of nothing more than a lonesome violin and the natural sounds of the rocky, desolate environs. Setting music to tape in such an unusual setting should provide some interesting results, and Bird finds success here. “Canyon” moves through its compositions with grace, conjuring a distinct feeling of natural isolation: nature itself begins to feel like its own living, breathing entity enveloping the listener in a shawl of starry nights and circling carrion. This trick works wonders for album opener “Sweep The Field,” whose plaintive strings unfurl deliberately over the tone of rippling water. As the Bird’s strings rise and fall, it’s not difficult to imagine the mammoth walls of dirt and stone in their pristine splendor, towering above him. “Groping The Dark,” the album’s next cut, follows a similar pattern to even greater effect. Here, Bird’s talent with the violin is on full display as he weaves through numerous sonic progressions, all the while capturing an impressionable essence of the wild. Not only does “Grope The Dark” cement itself as the emotional peak of the record, but it also works to justify the questionable virtues of Bird’s outdoor excursion. “Canyon,” however, soon begins to suffer diminishing returns as it delves deeper into its tracklist.
By the time the record’s third cut, “Rising Water,” comes to its close, the trick is beginning to wear thin. Given just how beautiful the sounds actually are, this is a shame, because with just some variation to the approach, Bird could have infused the record with a much-needed refresher. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the following tracks, but the singular approach can only sustain so many minutes worth of music. It’s almost too cruel a joke to remark that “The Return of Yawny” immediately follows the languid sprawl of “Antrozous,” but like many hard truths, it’s one that shouldn’t be shoved under the rug. Things only degenerate with increasing rapidity as the record continues its meandering drone. With each pass of the clock, the record feels all the more lost within itself. And, really, by the time “Before the Germans Came” rolls around, that’s what most listeners are going to be focused on. If this is what fans can expect from Bird over the next few years, they may find themselves wishing, for the first time, that he’d stayed where he was.