Tuatara | East of the Sun (Fast Horse)
Written by Jason Green / playback:stl
Monday, 25 June 2007
The implied purpose of most supergroups is that the resulting new band consolidates everything you like about each member's respective band into a musical juggernaut that everyone can like. Very rarely does that work as advertised, however, which is probably why Tuatara works where so many like groups have floundered. The members of Tuatara—who include R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Minus Five frontman and Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey, and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin—play against type, rock guys making spacious instrumental music intended for film soundtracks.
After a four-year hiatus following 2003's remix album The Loading Program, Tuatara's fifth album East of the Sun once again plays against type, but this time against its own typical modus operandi. In lieu of instrumentals, each of East's 15 tracks features a guest vocalist, 10 singers in total. Despite the vocals, the underlying music still captures the feel of a great movie score, in this case the sun-dried vibe of a classic Western. East of the Sun, it should be noted, is also only part one: its counterpart West of the Moon ("more groovy and feminine," according to Martin) arrives later this year.
For the most part, the band's choice in vocalists is wonderfully complementary to the songs on hand. Perhaps the most fitting singer is Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, who appears on three tracks. The first, "The Spaniard," offers a gently strummed acoustic guitar with subtle flamenco accents, while the menacing bass and Dave Carter's mariachi-esque trumpet conjure up images of gunfights at noon on "Madrigal." The penultimate track "Love Is" is quite unlike anything Louris has ever recorded, a spoken word piece whose sparse arrangement would have sounded quite at home on R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. Sufi poet Coleman Barks also contributes three spoken word performances over Tuatara's starkly atmospheric music; the results work as poetry but stand out as awkward and out of place in the context of the album.
The remainder is packed with more straightforward songs that maintain the typical Tuatara vibe—only Buck's inimitable guitar style belying from which band he hails—and allow the singers to give each song its own flavor. McCaughey's pure pop voice gives the two songs he sings (opener "Waterhole" and "Missionary Death Song," another tune heavy on Carter's trumpet) instant accessibility, while Jessy Greene of the Geraldine Fibbers contributes violin and lead vocals to the lilting, Beth Orton-esque "Bones, Blood and Skin." Meanwhile, former Luna frontman Dean Wareham slows things down with the sleepy, banjo-led companion pieces "Trouble Rides In" and "Your Ghost Town." Also turning in appearances are Mark Eitzel, John Wesley Harding, Louris' fellow ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson, and Victoria Williams, whose short, jazzy "Rainbow Drops" is the highlight of the album's back half.
Some fans may be disappointed that Tuatara has forsaken instrumentals on their latest album, but those who take a chance will more than likely be happy with the results. Despite the numerous singers, the album maintains cohesiveness, and the band's by-now patented cinematic style still comes through loud and clear.
B+ | Jason Green
East of the Sun is out on Fast Horse Records