An album of songs inspired by animals doesn’t sound immediately promising. It brings to mind certain cassette tapes from my youth, featuring bearded men singing earnest ballads about the banana slug (not a joke; I actually had that tape).
But Songs for Unusual Creatures, by composer Michael Hearst, is a beast of a different color. If you popped it into your player without any context at all, you’d hear a catchy, rhythmic cross between classical music and jazz, threaded with eerie theremin solos and digeridoo bass lines. It’s the kind of music you might play on endless loop while you study, work out, or write (ahem). Lots of syncopation and kooky instruments, as well as clear melodies, keep the sonic landscape interesting. (You can see Hearst perform one of the songs above.)
But it’s not just pretty sounds. Each track on the CD draws its inspiration from one of 15 unusual creatures, the kind of evolution-honed weirdoes that readers of this blog and science writers like myself enjoy so much, like the blue-footed booby, the Chinese giant salamander, the honey badger, and the humpback anglerfish. Each of these animals is profoundly odd—the tardigrade (track 11), for example, is one of the few creatures that can survive the vacuum of space—and their eponymous songs are also distinctively strange. “Dugong,” about the cigar-shaped, seagrass-grazing marine mammals, is a spacey, blue little tune. “Tardigrade” sounds like the love child of a Gypsy circus band and a jazz quartet.