This week’s Music To Sweep To (really should have gone with BroomTunes) is the instrumental work of Andrew Bird. There are exceptions, but overall I’m not a huge fan of Bird’s non-instrumental music (I didn’t mention this to him when we spoke last week, nor did he ask). His aesthetic is naturally pretty, but for some reason when he sings, it tips the scale from pleasantly sweet to saccharin, from moving to cloying.
I pretty much wrote the dude off until 2012, when I heard his music in the audiobook for David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Unlike Sedaris’ earlier audiobooks, which were scored with painfully goofy MIDI jazz tunes, Owls had this heavy, thoughtful score that was well-suited to the author’s sweet, cynical sense of humor. It’s a pretty brilliant matchup actually, and about halfway through, I started to have a bunch of those cornball moments that make you go “What is this?”
"This" was “You Woke Me Up!” from Bird’s instrumental album Useless Creatures.
Useless Creatures was released as a bonus album alongside his non-instrumental record Noble Beast in 2009. It wasn’t his first foray into instrumentals — his albums often have one or two — but Creatures felt and feels like it’s discovering or offering something new. I can’t think of any vocalist whose music is altered more by the addition of their voice. These would not be the same songs with Bird singing and it’d be difficult for him to even try. These songs aren’t built for it.
Of course, all of this (falsely) assumes that instrumentals are just non-instrumental songs with the vocals muted. Listening to “Hot Math,” it’s hard to imagine Bird finding a chorus in that thing. Because, of course, it wasn’t intended to have one. This is a longwinded way of saying that the two sides of Andrew Bird’s music, ones with vocals and ones without, are really profoundly different experiences. I think it’s rare to be so drawn to select songs in an artist’s catalog and so off-put by the rest. It’s like loving Aerosmith, but only the songs sung by Joe Perry. It never happens.
So…I compiled my favorites from Useless Creatures and other instrumental gems from his catalog. Most recently, he released an album called Echolocations: Canyon, which was recorded, mostly improvised, in Coyote Gulch in Utah. He’s planning to record more location-based instrumentals in the future, so maybe he has been getting my letters. Enjoy.
Best if you work in: spelunking, fire lookout, park maintenance
Since I just used quite a few words detailing my dislike for the dude’s voice, I’d like to undo it now with this great (non-instrumental) cut from his latest album Are You Serious.