When Andrew Bird released Noble Beast in 2009 to critical acclaim, it arrived with a limited edition second disc of instrumentals called Useless Creatures. After one initial run, the LP disappeared. Now, the singer-songwriter has re-released the record as a stand-alone piece. How does it compare to his previous work? To put it simply, you can split it down the middle in terms of stylings. Half the record sounds like its sister album. The other half is full of experiments that deviate from what fans are used to, but it’s still unmistakably Andrew Bird.
It may seem like a throwaway bonus disc, but Useless Creatures is an album with a capital A. All nine songs have been meticulously placed in an order that flows brilliantly from beginning to end. Tracks often transition into each other, and even when they don’t, the themes or arrangements just work together. If Bird were to tour this album, he’d have to play it in order to keep its beauty intact. Unlike the sprawling Noble Beast, this record is compact yet still lengthy enough to warrant a full price and a full listen. Its combination of traditional music and experimental undertakings (all with the same instruments) will keep you guessing and keep your attention, even through the album’s few weak points.
The album starts with “Master Sigh”, one of the more offbeat numbers that transports you to another place. A low, gospel hum fades in and finds a place in the background as a click-clack beat drops down on top of it. The horseshoe sound builds at a steady pace into a crescendo that overtakes any other sounds by the end. It’s the musical equivalent of seeing the daily life of a small town and then gradually zooming out from above until the features of the land become indistinguishable.
All of the songs that move Bird outside his comfort zone also transport the listener to another time and/or place. The watery percussion of “Nyatiti” creates the feel of being in a jungle. Strumming guitars duel with plucking violins to create a fairly funky groove. Strings and bells drop in here and there, adding texture to an already composite track. “The Barn Tapes” musically moves like the ocean, but it really sends you to outer space. Tidal waves of noise that sound like a tuning orchestra fade into a deep, resonating hum throughout the song. The whole track would work wonders as the peaceful alternative to Ligetis Requiem aka the monolith’s score in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, the exchange between these two styles becomes very repetitive after a while. This wouldnt be a problem if the track was two or three minutes. But 10 minutes of it? Thats way too little substance for such a long length of time.
On the other end of the record, there are several songs that unmistakably scream Andrew Bird. “You Woke Me Up” is full of light violin plucks and loud strings that sweep in and out. This classical piece uses the string plucks to form a backbone as Bird builds a passionate violin piece around it. The song doesnt build as much as it ebbs and flows, looping around itself to make a layered piece of beauty. However, it’s also another number that could have done with a couple minutes shaved off.
“Carrion Suite” is kindred to “You Woke Me Up” but far superior. The mournful violin that comes in at the start will instantly grab you, tie you to a chair, and make sure all your focus is on the music unfolding before your ears. The way the instrument sighs and screeches makes for a journey with no obvious clues as to where youll end up. This only lasts for about a minute before it switches to a rapid, almost violent rhythm similar to a roulette wheel. Soon enough, the two styles collide into one masterful piece of music. The harsh backing rhythm juxtaposes against the cries of Birds violin perfectly. The rhythm is strong enough to stand on its own, but when the violin comes in, it instantly demands attention.
Ending where it started with a reprise of “Master Sigh” titled “Sigh Master”, Useless Creatures is both a sister album and the complete opposite of Noble Beast. Where Noble Beast was a lengthy album with shorter songs, this instrumental record contains nine longer tracks, but they’re packed to capacity with arrangements and innovations that stand alongside Bird’s best work. It was a good move on his part to treat Useless Creatures as a real album rather than a collection of outtakes. If you’re a fan of the man, it’d be in your best interest to do the same.