Over a nearly 20-year career, Chicago singer, songwriter and violinist Andrew Bird has built a rep as one of indie rock's most beguiling light touches – a dude who makes Jeff Tweedy look like a Nordic death-metal pyro. Fusing elements of jazz, Celtic folk and chamber pop while softly talk-singing – or whistling – tunes with titles like "Scythian Empires," he might be gratingly pretentious, if he wasn't so unobtrusively amiable. But on his ninth album, Bird gets direct, even confrontational. "Desperation Breeds..." sets the tone, opening the record with a dark blast of piano-guitar discord. Soon we get a sense of what's under his skin: "Go ahead and congratulate yourself," he sings on "Eyeoneye," a conservatory-Neil Young breakup seether. Andy's pissed, albeit in an I-know-she's-intentionally-forgetting-to-DVR-Downton Abbey-just-to-spite-me kind of way.
The emotional urgency energizes his fluid multi-instrumental elocution and learned metaphors; sometimes it sounds like he's burning an effigy of his ex in the quad at iTunes U: On "Give It Away," he evokes "worthless currency" over a gently plucked violin, analogizing inflation and failure like the Ron Paul of love. Whether contemplatively highbrow (the symphonic meditation "Hole in the Ocean Floor") or forlornly down-to-earth (the alt-country of "Fatal Shore"), his angst studies feel cathartic without seeming mean-spirited; when healing marimbas and crickets materialize for the album-ending instrumental lullaby, "Belles," it's a welcome exhaling moment. He's earned his rest.
• Photos: Random Notes