On his first two records, 1998's Thrills and 1999's Oh! The Grandeur, Andrew Bird presented himself as an exceedingly bright and talented musician who had very little new to say. An excellent violinist and competent songwriter, Bird took the musical genres that nobody fussed with anymore and infused them with … nothing. He let his ragtime, western swing, gypsy jazz, and German cabaret ditties sound exactly like they did way back when. For folks who enjoyed Woody Allen soundtracks or were easily led by claims of “authenticity,” this approach was a revelation. To hear his fans tell it, Bird was pure genius, a guy who was writing 'em like they used to — the perfect tonic for these techno-troubled times.
Hogwash. Bird and his group were unquestionably sincere, but their music always felt like gravedigging. Like a lot of musicians who turn their ears to earlier decades, Bird forgot an essential lesson: Retro's only fun if you're doing something fun with it. Compared to Tom Waits' black-hearted tangos and Nick Cave's grotesque stabs at Brecht-Weill, Bird's music was just wallpaper. But on The Swimming Hour Bird starts mucking around with tradition, and the results are better than even he could have imagined. Waltzes slam against trash-rock guitars, doo-wop vocals do-si-do with Mack the Knife, Patsy Cline learns to tango, and Scott Joplin discovers how to rock. It all works: What could've been a musical nightmare turns out to be a dream.
While the opening “Two Way Action” may shock the loyalists — “What's Bird doing messing with amplified pop hooks?” — more often the song styles draw no attention to themselves. The lilting, midtempo melody of “11:11” is so seductive that it takes a few listens to notice the woven chamber pop, country blues, and Broadway show-stopper themes. That subtly irreverent approach threads most of the record, and the musicians are agile enough to keep up with Bird's lyrical flights of fancy — particularly drummer Kevin O'Donnell, who syncopates gleefully in all sort of ways, and singer Nora O'Connor, who counters Bird's plaintive voice. The old-timey shtick is reserved for the ending ballad “Dear Old Greenland,” where Bird dusts off his husky cabaret voice one last time. It's hard to imagine him returning to it much, though. When you've just discovered color, why would you stick with black and white?