Bird Show
Green Inferno


ird Show incubated last winter in the home recordings of Ben Vida, the Chicago-based improvisor, guitarist/cornetist in instrumental ensemble Town & County (Thrill Jockey/BoxMedia), solo artist, and multi-year title holder as (by my estimation) the most talented unsung acoustic guitarist on our watery planet. Not that I care that much about instrumental prowess, which is about as interesting to me as weight lifting—I refer to him as a guitar hero with a smidgen of irony, but sincere intent. In fact Vida has always been at odds with displays of technical virtuosity. He is a minimalist, not in the academic sense but in the way that Erik Satie was a minimalist, or Billie Holiday. His talent (and the origins of his unsung-ness) lie very much in the way his instrument breathes, his pacing, the harmonic choices he makes as a writer and improviser, the way he sculpts and contours the silences between notes, the artistic weight of his particular flavor of restraint. His brilliant attention to the acoustic resonance of his instrument put him years ahead of his closest peers among other guitarists. The warmth and richness of tone that he achieves in the way he approaches his instrument physically (and in the studio as heard on the Town & Country records, or his previous solo outing Mpls.) renders the most intimate, warm, human, acoustic (with a capital 'A') I've heard a guitar sound on record. Vida's compositions and improvisations (cf. his work with Pillow) are, though minimal and spacious, harmonically complex with modernist leanings. They don't romanticize the instrument's folk origins or go in for New Age contrivances. Vida's guitar communicates the modern, occasionally even atonal, in a neo-pastoral voice that has always been at the core of what makes Town & Country such an arresting group.

Bird Show is a very, very (did I say "very"?) different animal. The allegiance to minimalism and resonant electro-acoustics remain in evidence, but it is presented in what I can only describe as a magical realist tribute to North African and Pacific Rim ethno-musicological field recordings. The record is balanced between microtonal drones and gradually evolving repetitious, rhythmic tracks. The drones are tremulous, queasy in an effectively rendered gritty sort of way, they drift but they bite. A few of the rhythmic tracks, employing the use of Moroccan percussion and double-reed drones, veer dangerously close to world-music pastiche (their frequently striking fidelity to the folk music origins put them in 'desert movie soundtrack' territory rather more than is advisable). But Vida has also made conscious effort to explain that while he has been interested in the music of Morocco, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, his interests lie as much within the extraneous aspects of the recordings themselves. This intent comes through, more or less intact. The implicit far-awayness, the revived ghosts of long departed tape hiss, and the paranoia of an outsider-looking-in are very present in the spirit of this record. Particularly in the vocals, which in no way attempt to mock the ululations of an exoticized foreigner.

I was shocked on first listen to hear Vida singing at all (for the first time), disappointed when the vocals did not seem to distinguish themselves or warrant much attention, but on multiple listens finding myself wanting more of them. The vocals, a Panda Bear-ish affair executed in mostly "oustider" terrain, place the absurdity and voyeurism of the whole enterprise on a wobbly center stage. The bravest and most telling moment can be found on "All Afternoon Pt #2 (Dawn of the Dead," which is at times a dead ringer for Tony Conrad's Early Minimalism drones until they’re yanked aside in favor of home recordings of (presumably) Vida and friends talking and laughing (cut-ups, preventing any overt semantic context from coloring the track). The cut-away is sudden, like a tape being snipped, and after a few moments, you are tossed back into the curtains of drone as if nothing happened. In vivid contrast to the sometimes-theatrical occidental pose of some other tracks, the matter-of-factness of this moment is shocking, at complete odds with what has come before, it makes absolutely no sense in context of the track, or in the recording as a whole. The truth is there are not nearly enough such interruptions and moments in the course of the record's 46+ minutes.

If I've always felt Vida's voice on the guitar to be instantly recognizable in a crowd, regardless of the musical context, and if that made me a fan, I have to admit feeling deflated upon hearing Bird Show. The press release insists that Bird Show is Vida's attempt to send a form letter announcing his love to his many disparate musical inspirations and pet projects. If I can hear reference to T&C; or Pillow or Mpls (and I do), I don't hear (or feel) much of what I have typically loved about Vida's playing. I can't fault the man for my being all hung up with his old-school. But if Bird Show is an engaging listen when you focus your attentions on it, unlike Town & Country it seems a little too easy to allow the music to remain hiding in the background with all of its most clever moments safely concealed. Given that Vida is using the release of this record as a launching point for a live Bird Show identity with his longtime collaborator Liz Payne, it will be very interesting to see how the group sound develops as they rework these recordings for live performance, and to see whether or not this will prove to be a one-off diversion or a sharp and deliberate retooling of the musical identity he has created for himself up to now.

Reviewed by: William S. Fields

Reviewed on: 2005-02-07

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