Andrew Bird’s new album Break It Yourself is out this week, and while we’ve never been huge fans of the whistlin’ violin-totin’ Midwesterner, we certainly appreciate the diversity of his talents. Bird is one of the most impressive multi-instrumentalists in music today, and with both he and another musician who can apparently play pretty much anything he picks up — namely Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood — releasing new music this week, we thought it’d be a fine time to survey a selection of similarly outrageous talents. We’ve tended to focus on contemporary musicians here — after all, it gets a little tiresome to hear about Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and John Paul Jones all the time — so let us know if you have any other suggestions.
Stevens’ talents cover pretty much every seat in the orchestra. He plays stringed instruments (guitar, bass, banjo), along with piano, a range of wind and brass, drums and anything else he can get his hands on — the liner notes for Michigan credit him for over 20 instruments, including something called “dramatic cymbal swells.” Because, y’know, what record doesn’t need some dramatic cymbal swells?
But clearly, Sufjan can’t play all those instruments himself when he’s touring, and some pretty impressive talent has gone through his band over the years. Foremost amongst these musicians is Annie Clark, who’s also proven herself to be a fine songwriter since parting ways with Stevens and going solo. In addition to her impressive voice, Clark plays guitar, bass, and keyboards, but her greatest talent arguably lies in creating the unconventional arrangements that characterize her records.
True story: when we saw Radiohead play many years ago, during the OK Computer era, Jonny Greenwood amused himself during “Street Spirit” by playing the song’s fiddly guitar figure and simultaneously picking out the piano melody with the headstock of his Telecaster. Now that‘s multi-instrumentalism right there.
In her characteristically unassuming style, PJ Harvey doesn’t make much of a fuss about her diverse talents, but as well as being a lauded songwriter, she’s a remarkable instrumental talent. In addition to guitar and the autoharp she’s been using of late, she also plays violin, piano, bass and, impressively, a pretty mean saxophone. That’s her playing the sax throughout Let England Shake, a record that marks her first recorded use of the instrument, although she’s been playing it for years — a testament, perhaps, to the fact that she’s more interested in finding the right sounds for the song in question than she is in flashy instrumentation.
If we’re speaking of PJ Harvey, it’d be remiss to neglect to mention the man who’s been a stalwart of her band over the last decade or so. As far back as his Boys Next Door/Birthday party days, musical polymath Mick Harvey (no relation, of course) has been playing anything and everything that was required of him, depending on who else was in the band at the time and what the song in question required: guitar, bass, drums, keys, various other percussion, and backing vocals. In addition to his work with Nick Cave, he’s lent his talents to records by a slew of other artists, and he’s also an accomplished producer.
The ever-reliable Wikipedia lists something called a “swarmatron” amongst the apparently endless list of instruments that Reznor’s deployed on his records over the years. If you’re wondering, it’s a ribbon synth that plays eight separate oscillators simultaneously — the instrument generates the sort of dramatic atmospheric textures that Reznor used to such effect on the soundtrack to The Social Network, and it sounds way cool. Now we want one. Except they sell for $3,500. Curses.
The woman behind tUne-yArDs is one of the most idiosyncratic musicians going around, her records drawing on a disparate range of sounds, from hip-hop beats and fractured electronic sounds to ukulele and saxophone and her instantly recognizable voice, creating music that sounds like it might give Tom Waits a headache.
Mika Levi — aka Micachu — works in a similar area to tUnE-yArDs, producing wildly eclectic and unconventional records with a variety of wacky instruments and a loop pedal. If anything, she’s even more unusual than Merrill Garbus — she was classically trained in violin and viola, and while these appear on her records, they do so alongside everything from homemade instruments to vacuum cleaners and broken bottles. The results can be a more than a little overwhelming at times, but there’s no doubt that Levi’s a special talent.
A one-man string section who makes records with titles like He Poos Clouds? Pallett’s an unconventional talent, alright, and also a thoroughly impressive one. String-and-bow instruments are Pallett’s forté, but he also plays harpsichord, guitar, bass and piano, and also looks after all the decidedly strange arrangements on his decidedly strange records.
But for all their talents, we’re not sure any of these upstarts can rival the man who’s still the most outrageously talented musician in music today, bar none. Prince announced his arrival to the world with For You, on which he played and arranged all of the 27 instruments featured on the album (also handling production duties for good measure), and he hasn’t let up since. And it’s not just that he’s not only competent with anything he picks up — it seems that he’s inevitably amazing, from outrageous fretboard pyrotechnics like the famous outro to “Purple Rain” to killer keyboard solos like the one on “When Doves Cry.” Now, if only he could master the art of quality control…