2010 was a relatively quiet year for Andrew Bird – or at least for anyone who wasn’t him. As always, he was across continents performing numerous shows, contributing songs towards compilations and also cultivating a “Sonic Arboretum” with Ian Schneller in the Guggenhiem museum. Release wise, the year was rather uneventful: along with the re-release of Useless Creatures, he managed to sneak in the fourth volume of his Fingerlings collection before the year was out (along with some own brand socks – perfect stocking fillers for this Christmas past).
For any huge or dedicated Bird fan the release of Useless Creatures isn’t likely significant as they most likely picked up the deluxe edition of Noble Beast that dropped in 2009 which had it included. Re-releasing it isn’t an unwelcome gesture though – but part of me can’t consider it a totally essential gesture either. While it’s nice to have a disc on instrumental niceties from Bird, it being material that likely only an avid fan of the artist will be interested in (and probably already have) makes you wonder where who the target audience is.
Still, for what it is and on its own, it’s still an interesting collection of recordings that sheds light on Bird’s musical construction. While his Fingerlings recordings catch him in a tense, sweaty live atmosphere where we see every gesture for what it is and all the loops and songs come together one note at a time, the recordings of Creatures comes off as a much more relaxed selection of sessions by himself or with a couple of friends in his barn (which he transformed into a recording studio). When things are at their most relaxed and free-flowing, it shows and the results are enjoyable in numerous ways. “Nyatiti” is wonderfully mellow and upbeat number based on a traditional Kenyan melody that seems foreign on paper but natural in sound for Bird as it weaves numerous melodies to create something worth listening to intently but something can just heighten the good mood in a room.
Other times the music seems to be a sort of soundtrack to the fields outside his Illinois barn. “Dissent” is a wavy piece where streaks of violin move about gracefully, like birds playing with each other in the air. The ambient but inevitably lumbering centrepiece “The Barn Tapes” can be queasy at times but when you stumble into a peaceful moment it can be like catching sight of the a streak of wind flowing through a field of tall grass.
Elsewhere there’s a strange kind of tension in the music. “Hot Math” is an exciting fusion of dizzying violin and seemingly endless pizzicato loops that get by on the sheer momentum the rhythms have. Be it the strange sort of electric effect Bird has put on his violin, there’s still a sort of itching incomplete sound to the track, like he’s aiming for something but can’t quite get there. At the other end of the record is “You Woke Me Up!” where the tension is more subdued. It’s sort of like a ticking clock and after the calm opening number “Master Sigh” the first part of the record sort of sounds like Bird’s personal soundtrack to waking up in the morning.
Even at it most curious moments (the ever-changing scenarios that “Carrion Suite” presents), Creatures is hard to class as misstep for Bird because he’s a musician who seems quite incapable of making one. Creatures isn’t as engaging as one of his conventional albums nor as thrilling as one his live shows but at the very least it’s gives us fifty minutes of how this man might well spend his morning. And for a man as musically interesting as Bird, that’s no bad thing.