[28 November 2010]
PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor
Useless Creatures was originally released as part of the deluxe edition of 2009’s Noble Beast. Once that fact is in the air, it’s hard to shake the bonus track feel of the album. Over ten days in a Chicago studio, Andrew Bird recorded a set of loopy, atmospheric instrumentals with percussionist Glenn Kotche and bassist Todd Sickafoose. The relative isolation of the project and Bird’s description of the result as an “ambient experimental record” make it tempting to dismiss Useless Creatures as one of the songwriter’s marginal releases, but in juxtaposition with the rest of his discography, this album has a lot to say about his music and his mindset.
These nine tracks share the quiet intimacy of Noble Beast, but they’re starker and more amorphous. It’s an almost criminal abstraction, but the collage sensibility and textural sensitivity of songs like “Master Sigh” and “Dissent” are workouts in mood more than songwriting. “The Barn Tapes” is so conceptual, it could be misconstrued as the work of a visual artist. Surges of noise wash alternately over the listener, each compounded of what sounds like a dozen individual snippets. You can hear Bird tuning his violin in prismatic, orchestral cacophony alongside Sickafoose’s double bass and the sound of a running stream and chirping birds.
Some of the tracks are more clearly structured. “Nyatiti”, for example, is based on a Kenyan folk song. A simple loop of jangling percussion and folksy strings underpins Bird’s violin playing and whistling. Even when the melody is more obvious, even repetitive, the informal arrangements and Bird’s uninhibited playing make the songs sound like the inspired experiment of an afternoon or a jam session between three remarkably like-minded musicians.
The mood that Useless Creatures so effortlessly creates is by turns alien, warm, surreal, and poignant. Much like the best of Bird’s solo work, it breaks music down into its simplest parts without sacrificing any power of expression. On opener “Master Sigh” and its companion closer “Sigh Master”, Bird’s signature humming and whistling pulse gently into coherence and harmony as a wet, clopping rhythm meanders peacefully below. The self-effacing sadness of this soundscape is the perfect entry and exit point to and from the record’s bizarre world. The beauty and tenuous emptiness of that world is captured, too, by the album’s artwork. A striking watercolor of a black beetle looking out over magenta toadstools and pastoral water plants adorns the front, and the title reads in bright, egalitarian capital letters.
Bird grew up playing classical music and he made his name playing folk and folk fusions. Useless Creatures is a fascinating glimpse into the simmering pot of attitudes and traditions that inform his playing. “Carrion Suite” is an episodic nine-minute symphony that brings a slew of influences, some real and some certainly imagined out of the woodwork. The simple elegance of the opening violin melody has a classical feel; the surly bassline of the middle portion brings to mind a Tom Waits style of theatricality, and Bird’s solo feels Eastern in origin. The simple, intuitive riff of the closing section evokes jazz or some long-lost minimalist prog rock. Taken as a whole, the piece feels much like a free jazz epic, flowing with a formless purpose from beginning to end.
Less compelling fare like “You Woke Me Up!” and “Hot Math” don’t quite meet the difficult standards set by the album’s highlights, but it would be nearly impossible to stitch up a project like this one into a seamless whole. For that reason, the album can be an uninviting listen. It’s hard to go in for just a taste, and those who commit to sitting the whole thing out might find themselves growing sleepy. If there’s one thing, though, to take from Useless Creatures, it’s that some things can be beautiful, no matter how useless they might be.