Miscellaneous Pop culture

Andrew Bird’s Kennedy Center Pops Concert plus my personal Top 5 Andrew Bird albums

Me: “I’m going to see Andrew Bird!”
You: “Who is Andrew Bird?”
Me: “He’s an indie rock songwriter who plays the violin.”
You: “Oh.”

Andrew Bird usually plays in late-night clubs, but in October he appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for a pops concert; also on the bill was singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane. (Kahane orchestrated Bird’s songs for the performance.) I bought tickets months in advance.

The performance cast Andrew Bird’s songs in a new light with the full orchestra filling out the songs and giving them a symphonic largeness. Some of the accompaniment was a little atonal for my taste — I would have preferred more melodic orchestration — but it still brought out the real beauty of great songs like “Pulaski at Night” and “Scythian Empires.” I love classical music and I love indie rock; I’d like to see more match-ups like Andrew at the Kennedy Center.

The night made me reflect on the five times I’ve seen Andrew Bird in concert … An earlier band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire in Austin at the South by Southwest music festival, probably around 1997 … At Tampa’s Straz Center in October 2012 for his album Break It Yourself … For his album Are You Serious at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.,  in April 2016 … At Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2017 … At the Kennedy Center Pops Concert in October 2018.

Here is my ranking of Andrew Bird’s Top 5 albums (or EPs).

5. I Want to See Pulaski at Night (2013) – The pop song perfection of “Pulaski at Night” with its lilting violin hook is nestled between soothing instrumental variations. This is a great EP for just chilling.  

4. Break It Yourself (2012) – Andrew Bird doesn’t really have “hits” per se, but the song “Eyeoneye” is a real rocker, and he played it on a late-night show or two when this album came out. The other songs are more leisurely and melodic, call it music for the planet Earth: the fragility of the natural world (“Hole in the Ocean Floor”), staving off climate change (“Desperation Breeds”), or traveling by boat (“Lusitania”) to Australia (“Fatal Shore”).

3. Armchair Apocrypha (2007) – This album has my second most-favorite song ever of Andrew BIrd’s, the thumping disco lullaby “Plasticities” with its warning to never let life’s slow unfolding lull you to sleep intellectually: “We’ll fight, we’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities/ They’ll fight for your neural walls and plasticities … precious territory.” There’s also the adventure story opening song “Fiery Crash,” the environmental warnings (again) of “Spare Ohs” (“What remains of the small flightless birds that you failed to protect?”) and the mythic galloping horse riders of “Scythian Empires.”

2. Noble Beast (2009) – So many great cuts on this one, from the mysterious sadness of “Oh No,” to the memory games of “Anonanimal,” to the pastoral longing of “Souverian.” It’s an album for sitting on a front porch at twilight on a summer’s night, sipping a cold drink.  

1. The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) – This is the Bird album I go back to again and again and again, because just about every song on it is so memorable and sweet. There’s my No. 1 favorite song of his, “Tables and Chairs,” a wistful love song for when the end of the world arrives. There’s the elegiac and soothing “Sovay,” there’s the pulsing syncopation (and whistling) of “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” there’s the child’s play marching song “Measuring Cups.” I could go on, but better that you listen yourself.

Books Pop culture

Harry Potter guest blog on

I wrote a guest post for Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog about the world of Harry Potter and a surprising connection to an Irish-American immigrant. I’ll send you over to Mark’s site to read the whole post, which is pegged to the new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them.” READ MORE.

History Pop culture

Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland

Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland:

Books Pop culture

A reader’s review of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ the movie (versus the book)

I’m an unabashed fan of the novel “Cloud Atlas,” so I was pretty nervous about the idea of a movie. After the critics panned it, I should have been forlorn, right? But I saw it for myself and loved it, really loved it.

The reviews of the movie “Cloud Atlas” have struggled to summarize its storyline because its based on a novel that heaps storyline upon storyline and leaps from one time period to another. It’s about a young attorney in the 1700s on a voyage through the South Pacific who succumbs to a strange illness and tries to help an escaped slave. It’s about a dashing young musician in the 1930s who wins an apprenticeship with an aging composer. It’s about a muck-raking reporter in 1970s California who tries to expose a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. It’s about an aging English publisher in the 1990s; he’s unwittingly committed to a nursing home by his malicious brother. It’s about a science-fiction future, when a clone tries to escape enslavement from “corpocracy” and inspires others to rebel. And it’s about the farther future, after “The Fall,”  when humanity tries to put itself back together in Hawaii after apocalyptic cataclysm.

Like most postmodern or post-postmodern novels, “Cloud Atlas” the book reminds readers constantly that what they’re reading is fiction. Its purpose is to layer multiple stories on top of each other so that a larger, different story emerges, much the way impressionist painters layered paint on canvas. It’s not a traditional narrative, but a story of ideas.  “Cloud Atlas” then becomes a meditation of how the strong prey on the weak, how the predators justify their actions, and how the weak find ways to resist.

The movie, interestingly, embraces most of the novel’s strange quirks and narrative play. (It also takes some interesting liberties with the book’s plot.) This isn’t a movie with a beginning a middle and and end, but many beginnings, many middles and many endings.

Different actors play different roles in the film, and some have suggested that one way to read this casting is as the same souls traveling through time. I would reject this reading of the progression of souls — even if the filmmakers intended it. For one thing, the idea doesn’t make much sense, and in the movie there’s no natural sense of how the characters are particularly connected. And for another thing, some of the actors are in such heavy make-up that you can’t even tell it’s the same actor. (I strongly disagree with the reviews that claim the actors always remain recognizable.)

So then why do I think this casting “works” anyway? Because it reminds you that the specific stories are connected thematically, not literally. It’s like a live stage play where the actors play different roles; it serves to remind you that you are watching a narrative that was created by human beings to explore ideas.

I went to “Cloud Atlas” with someone (Mark) who hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the movie and could follow it easily; it wasn’t as complicated as the reviewers would have you think. So with all that in mind, I would urge you to see “Cloud Atlas”. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a big bow or end with a big musical number. Instead, it’s just an interesting, beautiful movie that will make you think.