critic’s pick 253

On the night after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt gathered around a single microphone at NewYork’s Ed Sullivan Theatre for a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman. Given the city’s post-storm trauma, there was no studio audience. Still, the two, with help from Bird bassist Alan Hampton, harmonized on a stark, lustrous version of the Townes Van Zandt staple If I Needed You. Between the wonderfully antique flavor of Bird’s violin lead, the trio’s similarly roots-directed singing and the theater’s eerie stillness, the music suggested a scenario of significantly greater calm than what undoubtedly pervaded in New York that night.

If I Needed You is just one of the stylistic delights from Hands of Glory, a 35-minute EP disc cut as a sort of postscript to Bird’s fine full-length album from earlier this year, Break It Yourself.

This rootsy persona is yet another side to Bird’s expansive and growing musical profile. Along with the traditional yarn Railroad Bill, it presents Bird in an altogether looser context, one that is free of the loop effects that orchestrate his concerts and more formal albums.

But Hand of Glory also is something of a grab bag. The opening Three White Horses comes saturated in Ryan Adams-style Americana, with plaintive, autumnal harmonies and deep melodic hooks. The tune is reprised at the record’s close as Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses, a nine-minute deconstruction that is more in line with the atmospheric folk fracture that has come to define Bird’s music over the past decade. Falling somewhere between is a cover of the Handsome Family’s When That Helicopter Comes, a mix of gypsy style fancy and jagged, noir-style ambience.

Cut entirely by Bird and the road band he brought to Lexington in September, Hand of Glory might be designed as something of an interlude between more proper album projects. But it also reflects the rapid stylistic growth and vocal/instrumental maturity that continues to distinguish the music of this folk/pop original.

Merritt’s new Traveling Alone is perhaps less of a surprise, but it is no less satisfying. Its fine songs veer to confessions of cool resolve (the title tune), Americana meditations of isolation and hope (Small Talk Relations) and some righteously spry rock ‘n’ roll with guitar great Marc Ribot (Still Not Home).

Topping them all is the album-closing Marks, a wintry confessional of romantic uncertainly brought to life by Merritt’s hushed singing and Eric Heywood’s lush pedal steel orchestration.

A tasty duet with Bird (delivering a credible Roy Orbison falsetto) called Drifted Apart is an additional highlight. But as the album title suggests, Merritt’s finest traveling companion here is her own artistic intuition.

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