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On first hearing about Useless Creatures, I was sceptical about how Andrew Bird's talents might translate to an instrumental album. Despite his apparent belief that each new album should represent a fork in the road, taking him off on some crazy new tangent, his vocal talents have always had the effect of bringing it all back down to earth – a humanising element that glued together lofty ideas that might sound convoluted or unconvincing in the hands of others. From the throwback swing numbers of Thrills to the idiosyncratic pop of Armchair Apocrypha, his back catalogue is littered with instrumental tracks, but they alone never tickled me like his cryptic lyrics and off-kilter vocal delivery could. Add to that the fact that Useless Creatures was originally a free accompaniment to his last release, Noble Beast, and my brain began adjusting its expectations accordingly.
But Useless Creatures isn't strictly an instrumental album. There are no discernable words, but small loops of various "oohs" and "ahhs" abound, as does Bird's inimitable style of whistling, which in my opinion should earn him some sort of medal. Opener 'Master Sigh' begins with manipulated snapshots of Deep South-style country harmonies and whistled bird song, violins rising in the distance. It is the soundtrack to a sunrise on a lazy pastoral scene, pizzicato strings willing the eyes to open. This goes well with 'You Woke Me Up', which features some stunning bowing techniques that take the instrument to almost the top of its register without grating.
'Nyatiti' follows, another upbeat example of the Chicago musician's deep understanding of harmony, rhythm and the dense layering of elements, this time utilising principles of counterpoint that give the track a distinctly afro-pop flavour. Once again, the technique involved in performing the violin lines is near virtuosic, and the half-distorted tone of his instrument casts the mind back to 'Anonanimal' from Noble Beast, a personal favourite.
Four tracks in and only then does Bird's own description of 'ambient experimental' come good. 'The Barn Tapes' is constructed from a collection of recorded samples apparently played in reverse (or at least made to sound that way). A pulse rises and falls from its primordial sludge as violins chime in and pitch bends defy the ears. This is very closely related to 'conventional' ambient music - in so far as that actually exists - but contains less personality and verve than many of the other efforts presented here.
As if in acknowledgment this, Bird follows it with 'Carrion Suite', a tune that is not lacking in either individuality or originality. It seems like three songs welded together with a lurching, moody violin melody and plunking bass. The mid section has a kind of junkyard folk sentiment, propped up with percussive meanderings and a pinch of jazz, while the end is essentially chamber music. It's times like this that I realise this particular musician doesn't need his voice - as great as it is - to generate intrigue and captivate his audience. Another great highlight is 'Hot Math', which builds from a whisper to a flurry of heavily-effected scales. In keeping with Noble Beast, which starts with 'Oh No' and ends with 'On Ho!', Useless Creatures concludes with 'Sigh Master', a serene lullaby to end the day.
Some fans of Bird's past work might find this album hard going. It is certainly experimental, but has the restraint to draw the line before showboating and indulgence creep in. I have nothing but respect for Andrew Bird's ability to swap thinking caps like he does, snowballing all his past creations in an ever-evolving development. Useless Creatures is no exception and more than holds its own against its sister album.
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