When characters in the film of Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth discuss Americana, the setting is genteel society in 1905. To these ladies and gentlemen, Americana is simply American art, quintessentially colonial and indigenous.
See also: Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire, whose third album, The Swimming Hour, is most sensual Americana: hot jazz, sugary doo-wop, lilting western swing and more. As long as we’re redefining terms, let’s pause on “easy listening” — which this is, though not as innocuous background filler, but rather as raw honey coating tongue and throat, “goin’ down slow,” as Bird, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor sing quite excitingly on “How Indiscreet”.
Inasmuch as The Swimming Hour maps out American music before volume and technology dominated, it also reveals the manner in which that music reflects and refracts physical desire. Although his vocal range invites parallels with Lou Reed, Bird actually resembles John Cale, another classically trained musician lured by pop neon. His own allure lies in sweet breeziness and languor, in the accretion of stream-of-consciousness images in “Two Way Action” and the twisting of rhymes to clever ends (“Everybody’s talking/Nobody’s listening/Everybody’s sweating/Nobody’s glistening”) a la Elvis Costello in “Waiting To Talk”.
That quality is doubled by his wild violin and supported by the Bowl Of Fire. The experience of O’Connor, guitarist Colin Bunn, bassist Josh Hirsch and drummer Kevin O’Donnell comes out professionally and naturally. Neither formalism nor laziness afflicts the music’s unexotic yet entirely refined sway. Buoyed by the sense that no good melody or style ever dies, The Swimming Hour floats beautifully.