ANDREW BIRD is yet another critically adored and independently minded musician from the Midwest who's living up to all the hype about him. Born in a farm town in Illinois, Bird started playing a homemade violin when he was 4, and the instrument still plays a central role in his music (alongside his famous whistling, which some say sounds like a theremin). He's a solo, multi-instrumental performer, and makes extensive use of looping technology to accompany himself with various string and percussion instruments. His live shows sometimes get a bit clunky, not because he has problems with the machinery (he doesn't, and uses it to impressive effect), but having an actual band to help him jump right into songs would help him keep momentum during a performance. That said, like most pop songwriters, Bird generally uses guitars and drums to build the central structure of his songs—thereby keeping his music accessible—but he also excels at adding layers to his simple pop songs without drowning them in orchestration, using strings, whistling and his own voice to create innovative (but not avant-garde) melodies and hooks.
Now 33 years old and a whopping 12 albums deep, Bird's latest, Armchair Apocrypha, is one of the best indie albums of 2007. The ingredients in the songs are consistent, giving the album a harmonious feel, but his approach varies widely, leaning toward Latin riffs in "Imitosis," a cheeky biography of a naive scientist, employing what amounts to a gentle break beat on "Simple X" and moonlighting as a torch singer on "Armchairs." Most noticeably, Bird repeatedly flexes his Japanese influences in "Heretics" and "Yawn at the Apocalypse," in which he uses a musical saw as an instrument of Zen Buddhist meditation.
Moody without slathering it on too thick, Bird's engaging music often plays second fiddle to his even more engaging armchair philosophizing, which takes the form of easygoing banter in his pleasantly restrained tenor voice (he sounds, by turns, like Thom Yorke, Rufus Wainwright and Sting on Valium) bouncing lightly around pizzicato strings and cute little glockenspiel riffs.
TORI AMOS was a child prodigy on the piano and also the daughter of a reverend, which makes lyrics like "God sometimes you just don't come through/ Do you need a woman to look after you?" that much more poignant. Arguably the queen of all drama queens, Amos is known for her exceptional live shows in which she usually performs with two pianos facing each other, because for a firebrand like Amos, who sings candidly about her personal life and sexuality, one is never enough. She is also known for saying things that get her in trouble, or worse. In her song "Crucify," Amos asks the question: "Why do we crucify ourselves?" Answer: You, all right Tori? We learned it by watching you!
Sunday Dec. 9
Little Fox Theater
$18-$20 BUY TICKETS
I WORRY about Jonathan Richman. I know we all like to think of him as Happy Happy Fun Man, singing songs about Little Dinosaurs and Leprechauns and parties in the USA, but there's that other side of him, too—the forlorn, brooding Jonathan Dark Half that reaches all the way back to songs like "Hospital" and "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste" from his Modern Lovers years. You can usually see a little bit of this in concert, when Jonathan stares out with a hangdog expression that says, perhaps, "Man, it really was great dancing at the lesbian bar. I sure miss it. A lot." It's just that you're having such a great time at his show that you assume this apparent pathos is really only meant to be entertaining and cute. Is Jonathan in a funk? It's hard to tell when the show itself is still so relentlessly fun.
Friday Dec. 7
San Jose Civic Auditorium
135 W. San Carlos St
$37.50–$47.50. BUY TICKETS
Oak Ridge Boys
REGARDED today as a mainstay of country music, the history of the Oak Ridge Boys begins during the second World War, when a group of country gospel singers began performing in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The original lineup (then called the Oak Ridge Quartet) recorded an album for Capitol in 1947, which was met with marginal success. Over the next few years, personnel changes transformed the group entirely, but the changing faces didn't seem to thwart the band's rising popularity. In 1961, the band's name was sold to yet another cast of musicians, but this time, the change was for good. By 1970, the Oak Ridge Boys had won a Grammy for Talk About the Good Times and won over a fan base that spanned the nation. Throughout the next three decades, the band released several No. 1 songs, recorded material with legends like Johnny Cash and Paul Simon, and cemented country music's position as America's most popular genre.