Tarwater – Spider Smile

Tarwater
Spider Smile

From the outside looking in, people from other countries often have fascinating images of what America is like. Oftentimes it’s some nation-wide stereotype like the ever-popular cowboys with acres of land for their dilapidated red barns and grain silos. Although, after the turn of the century, it seems many people have deviated a bit from the freedom for all view and some uneasiness has set in. Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok give us their view of what our beloved country is like with this concept album. Through keyboards, guitar, oboe and harmonica mixed with synthesized instrumentation and hypnotic voice, the duo conjures up visions that are a little less sweet than apple pie.

The eerily spacey “Shirley Temple” sets the stage with repetitive keyboards and sounds that do little to put one at ease. Exploring the landscape reveals a lighter and yet even creepier voice along with a dark robotic noise that sounds slightly threatening. This does not feel like a nice place to linger. “A World of Things to Touch” picks up the pace and introduces a more lighthearted tone, or so it seems at first. Layers of bleeps, keyboards and repetitive beats bounce along over an acoustic guitar. Then the subdued vocals enter and quickly change the mood to something more troubling with lines like: “She wondered how far he had come / and what it cost him to return / all the memories and dreams that he brought back / would be deleted / by the world of things to touch.”

There only exists a small fraction of songs on the album that contain vocals. While the chilly sing/chant style can help to add a certain amount of flavor, at times the subdued vocal character actually takes away from the otherwise well put together complex of sounds and simply doesn’t fit. There are even points, although few, within the album where the sounds compete with each other. In “When Tomorrow Comes” there is a sound that overpowers everything else to the point of being almost unbearably annoying. It sounds like someone winding up a toy or running a stick over a grooved surface and is completely unnecessary. But generally, the sounds provide an interesting mix that stays fresh with each passing track.

The overall theme doesn’t just point to what America is, but rather what America has become, especially due to events in the last decade. The generally uneasy feeling and chilly undertone speaks volumes to what is perceived of our nation. The once wonderful place full of dreams and freedom has been changed for many. While at no point does any song come right out and say it, there are plenty of hints. In “Lower Manhatten Pantoum” strange atmospheric sounds ring out in a way that conjures up images of confusion. The keyboards enter with a melody that dips in and out of key. Then the lines open with “Always a bad sign / people on the sidewalk looking up”.

The uneasiness of the new American feelings are left to linger in the album closer “When Tomorrow Comes” where you’d hope for a bright light, a glimpse of the silver lining in the somewhat dismal picture. But it becomes a struggle between the instrumentation, full of acoustic guitar layers lifting up the optimistic keyboard melody and the robotic singing style. The theme of the entire album can easily be summed up in the line heard in the last song, “Everything that seemed the same / had somehow become so different now.”

While the theme may be tense and uneasy, it can be easy to ignore the words because of the abstract nature. Unless you are listening for them, this album could play in the background and you could enjoy the electronic and analog mix without thinking of certain events that may have contributed to the story line. As seasoned artists, the German duo has a long line of well-done albums and this one is no exception. For fans, this is an easy pick and for those who are knew to the international artists, this could be a good album to start with.