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Masters of their musical domains

By Chris Cooper

Two very different artists and albums, but similar in the pursuit of uniqueness and mastery in their respective genres: the enigmatic Andrew Bird and Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas.


Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha

A while back I attempted a review of Andrew Bird’s previous album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. The word “attempted” is used because his music proved quite tough to describe; he’s about as colorful and complex a character as they come. What stands out about his sound is its mix of wistful, orchestral beauty and his penchant for convoluted and hyper eccentric lyricism- song titles like “A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left” and choruses that peak with the words “...and drill a tiny hole into your head...” are usually indicators of a fairly strange ride. But you still have to contend with just how insidiously catchy his tunes can be, no matter how strangely they’re adorned.

Armchair Apocrypha on the surface feels like a small step towards something resembling “accessible” for Bird. This time around the songs are more concise, there’s more guitar, and there’s more “ooomph” to the whole affair. In fact, Bird stalls the delivery of his signature layers of electric violin and wicked whistling chops until the second track, “Imitosis,” a gorgeous study on whether loneliness begins at the molecular level. The groove here is classic if you’re familiar with Bird’s “thing”- the interweaving parts create a mesmerizing framework for his breathy Buckley-esque warble. On tunes like the unsettling and introspective “Darkmatter” he all but rocks out, bashing out crunchy chords against the rumbling percussion and abrupt dynamic shifts.

As with most of Bird’s work, Armchair Apocrypha is best digested in one sitting, as long as you’re endowed with a firm constitution and unwavering attention span. Few artists have such “can’t look away” magnetism in their work, and even fewer can maintain that level of intrigue despite how puzzling that work can be. If this album serves as the first taste of Bird’s inimitable sound for many listeners, it’s a fine introduction. For existing fans, it’s another fascinating step in Andrew Bird’s fearless and restless evolution. Skip to “Plasticities,” and don’t skimp on the volume.

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Jerry Douglas: Best Of The Sugar Hill Years

Jerry Douglas does things with the resonator guitar that are either so very wrong or so wonderfully right, depending on your personal views on “traditional” bluegrass. His list of credits includes sessions and performances with just about everybody, standouts being Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, the stunning Nashville album by Bill Frisell, and his long standing position with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Best Of The Sugar Hill Years collects gems from Douglas’s catalog on the Sugar Hill label reaching back to 1992’s Slide Rule up through Lookout For Hope a decade later. From the start this collection highlights his fearless recasting of the Dobro’s singular melodic voice outside of the standard bluegrass format. His soaring, melodic lines on “We Hide And Seek” and “The Wild Rumpus” are rippling with the kind of impeccable technique and musicality that made him the first call session ace for such a wide variety of musicians. Hearing him and Bryan Sutton sprint through the knuckle busting head for “Cave Bop” is downright terrifying, but these moments of knock-out chops are often balanced with more reflective tunes, like “Senia’s Lament.” Peter Rowan appears on vocal and guitar on “Lullaby of the Leaves,” a track that crackles with the kind of “one take” energy that some of the more slick, produced numbers lack.

In the end though, Best Of The Sugar Hill Years doesn’t leave you empty the way many “best of” albums can- especially those that collect mostly instrumental artist’s work. Hearing Douglas tackle anything from Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland” to the mournful “A Tribute To Peador O’Donnell” reveals much more than mind blowing chops; it’s a demonstration of artistic depth and character. The opportunity to hear his accompanists (guys with names like Fleck, Bush, Krauss and Meyer) bounce ideas off of each other is just icing on an already ridiculously rich cake. Inspiring and often joyous, the playing of a musician the caliber of Jerry Douglas makes you either eager to try your hand at the Dobro or just stay the heck away from one out of sheer respect. You decide.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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