For this, my 250th review for Punknews, I thought I would tackle the least-punk album I've written about in my nine years here. With the intention of finally getting into the incredibly talented Chicagoan Andrew Bird, I hit up my contacts upon word of this album’s release. Didn't bother reading up on it—just sent some emails out. A short while later it shows up at my door and I pop it in my stereo and wait. The lyrics never come. It turns out this is not the typical Bird album, and probably not my best introduction to the man. It was quite enjoyable in its own way, however, so I soldiered on.
Originally a bonus disc on the deluxe version of 2009’s more “traditional” Bird album, Noble Beast, Useless Creatures is what I will have to christen “indie classical.” Bird himself calls it an “ambient experimental record,” and while portions of it are atmospheric, there are too many great melodies and interesting rhythmic figures going for me to fully agree. It’s gotta have the “classical” because it is an instrumental record (whistling is an instrument for our purposes here) that is constructed solely of violins, double bass and percussion that is played orchestrally, never supplying a backbeat. There is no guitar on the album, though it seems he has been gravitating towards that instrument on other recent albums. Bird is classically trained with a violin performance degree from Northwestern University, so he has the chops to go full-on classical, but you gotta throw the “indie” on there if not only for being on hip indie label Fat Possum, but also because his tastes twist the classical mentality to include things like distortion and those “poppy” repetitive melodies and loops that aren't exactly Mozart. The music on this album could fit under the broad umbrella of the “20th century classical” genre and I've heard plenty weirder shit classified as classical. But it’s Andrew Bird. It’s “indie” (whatever the hell that is, anyway). I’m arguing with myself and none of you care, so let’s move on.
“Master Sigh” does start things out pretty ambient, but then you get to “Nyatiti”, the most “pop” song on the disc, which is especially interesting when you learn it was based on a traditional Kenyan folk melody. With a catchy whistling part doubled in the violin and a stomping, tribal beat of toms and shakers courtesy of Glenn Kotche of Wilco fame, the song is a goddamn toe-tapper. Immediately following is one of the more tuneless pieces, “The Barn Tapes”, a soundscape that would fit perfectly into some creepy movie, perhaps something by Kubrick. It shifts seamlessly from eerie dissonance to more pleasing chords before you even realize it.
“Carrion Suite” begins simply with a gorgeous violin melody with simple pizzicato bass underneath, played by Todd Sickafoose, best known for his work with Ani DiFranco. The song makes a sharp turn when Bird begins to bounce the bow stick off the strings, achieving a rapid-fire percussive sound. In another “movement,” Bird strums chords on his violin, as Kotche’s percussion steals some spotlight with cool timbale-type tom sounds and metallic effects. “You Woke Me Up!” is delicate and amazingly diverse in textures given the few instruments involved: an affected violin part flutters by under eerie reverbed whistling, with the layers of plucked violin and bass eventually joined by what I believe is vibraphone. “Hot Math” showcases Bird’s unbridled talent on the violin as he effortlessly shreds with his bow, then plucks the crap out of it, lumping one melody on top of another and then another. Importing a bit of his indie sensibilities he puts some fuzz on it all, but it can’t hide the technical prowess there.
While probably not for the outspoken Orgcore diehards, most of you could get something out of this record, if only for a change of pace. It’s beautiful and well-constructed, and its vocal-free nature could soundtrack a nice dinner or study session. While it was not exactly what I was hoping for, I dug Useless Creatures and will now dig further into Bird’s discography.