There are two short films that Andrew Bird has released with his music since he disbanded Bowl of Fire back in 2003. The first was a short nine-minute piece by Robert Trondson in which Bird explained how, at the time, he was converting an old barn into a recording studio. In the film we see him playing a few songs either alone or only in the presence of one other musician. The second film was released this year, and came with deluxe editions of his album Break It Yourself. “Here’s What Happened” is essentially a live document of the album it accompanied, and featured Bird with his now regular band playing in a relaxed atmosphere inside the now converted barn.
The main contrast between the two films is that in “Here’s What Happened” he’s got other people playing by his side; this is a valid representation of how Bird’s recorded material has evolved over that same time. When he first left his band, Bird involved himself in his own process of looping and layering, essentially becoming a one-man band. Though each of his albums do feature other musicians playing, there’s a definite difference between the style with which he introduced himself almost a decade ago compared to his latest work. Weather Systems felt like a lonesome affair at the time, while Break It Yourself sounds and is far more communal.
The Give It Away and Northwest Passage EPs are essentially a continuation of this new set-up; both offer up live cuts, capturing the band at their prime. The Northwest Passage EP is probably the better document in terms of actually “capturing” something, but at the same time it won’t give the listener a hugely gratifying new listening experience. If you’ve ever been able to see Bird live with a band, then the songs on Northwest Passage are essentially the standard you should expect; if you’ve not been able to catch Bird since Break It Yourself hit the shelves, then you’ll likely find some interest in the album tracks included here. While not to belittle Martin Dosh’s superb drumming, the added percussion on “Orpheo Looks Back” could be considered a little superfluous as the original already had a wonderful, lively pace. “Fatal Shore” and “Lusitania,” on the other hand, are just as sparse as their album counterparts, and don’t really add much.
The two most interesting tracks are “Desperation Breeds” and the solo version of “Carrion Suite.” The latter improves on the version found on Fingerlings 4, and holds water against the original version on Useless Creatures simply by being a louder and more up-front recording. The version of “Desperation Breeds” manages to capture the band’s infectious live energy, where Bird conjures theremin sounds from his violin during a dizzying middle section before gently stumbling into “Polynation.” Again, the simple sound of the pizzicato violin helps immensely, especially in capturing the bass notes he’s playing. These aren’t wildly important sonic details, but they may well prove important fragments in the future when trying to piece together how Bird’s sound has become what it is (as it can only grow and change, even if it does so slowly and subtlety).
Of the two EPs, though, Give It Away comes off as that bit more essential. The EP leads with its title track, which is probably one of the most infectious and likeable cuts from Break It Yourself to see release; “Give It Away” has Bird pondering how much of one’s self one can actually be given among different people (audiences, family, friends) expecting different things. Much like he’s done in the past, Bird manages to take a weighty, complicated issue and present it in a simple, affecting manner.
The reason the Give It Away EP seems more suitable to class as “essential” is that it offers two fresh cuts. The first is a cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine,” which has Bird turning a jangly number into an innocuous country shuffle. It’s pleasant, sure, and the mixing of male and female vocals is a great touch Bird should use just a bit more often, but it doesn’t change the game in any way. If there’s anything truly exciting to be found on either of the EPs, though, it’s “Tarrytown Mess.” The track starts with an insistent buzz that morphs into a live version of “The Crown Salesman” (an Alpha Consumer track Bird covered and released as a Record Store Day 10” earlier in 2012, which included “So Much Wine”). Again, it’s the sonic detail that’s key here, offering a new texture and sound, resonating that bit more for fans who are in tune with Bird’s musical particulars.
These two EPs, though pleasant and well-intentioned (Northwest Passage was given as a free download to those who pre-ordered Break It Yourself), are easy to deem a little superfluous, but doing so seems harsh. Bird’s a fine live musician, and though Northwest Passage isn’t his best example of this, it’s nice to have another example of what he can do. And Give It Away is as good as you could expect a post-album EP to be: there’s a strong lead track, a couple of new numbers, and an energetic live cut. Some might say these are just nice accompaniments to go with Break It Yourself, but the recently announced Hands of Glory (set to be released later this year) will do that job. With releases like these EPs, there’s no harm meant or done by them, they’re simply there for fans to delve into.