Tarcutta – s/t

Tarcutta - s/t

Tarcutta - s/t

The term “post-rock” has always contained something of a shape shifting quality; ever since the term worked its way into popular culture vocabulary back in the 1990’s, critics and fans alike have furiously debated as to whether or not the genre provides the means for rocking of any sort.  With a mission to utilize rock instrumentation in the most unexpected ways, it’s not hard to understand why post-rock’s namesake and its use as a qualifier in popular music have befuddled people for 15 years now.  But a few minor exceptions notwithstanding, there’s seems to be a practically universal agreement in the community that the genre eschews the quintessential pop song format in favor of a structure where more attention is drawn to elements often ignored in mainstream music: timbre, texture, and exotic rhythms among them.  And since our Western ears are predisposed to search for the familiar ingredients of vocal melodies and diatonic harmonies in music, post-rock’s consistent lack of lyrics and favoritism toward unorthodox chord structures only makes for a more surprising and varied listen.

I’m not sure if the music of Melbourne, Australia’s Tarcutta is particularly surprising – especially after the trails blazed by post-rock torchbearers like Tortoise and Explosions in the Sky – but with only a handful of instruments at their disposal, the variation they achieve from song to song is impressive, to say the least.

Over the course of eight tunes, this Aussie band continually applies an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach in which guitars (Justin Buckley), keyboards (Justin Wheelahan), and drums (Peter Barrett) will sometimes explore upwards of a half dozen different ideas in just as many minutes.  In some cases, their attempts to explore so much terrain yield high dividends, as it frequently does whenever the melodic instruments weave a patchwork quilt of lustrous melodic fragments.  At other times though, Tarcutta’s effort to continually expand their sonic palette comes across as a forced gesture.

The first third of Tarcutta’s debut album, while being a more obvious showcase of the band’s ability to actually rock, is an unfortunate example of the quandary described above; there’s far too much going on to gain a sense of cohesiveness.  Opener “Mount Bartle Frere” begins with ambient drones before launching into an assuredly heavy groove nearly a minute and a half later.  It’s all very rapid and blissfully chaotic until the beat – which suddenly changes to a half time feel – is split wide open, allowing for shards of melody and spacey guitar arpeggios to cut through.  With all of the reverb and filtering effects, things sound practically subaqueous for a time, until melancholy harmonies from the Hammond organ steer the proceedings down a new avenue.  This will be the first of many times on the album that I feel like I’m revisiting Pink Floyd’s “Us & Them” from Dark Side of the Moon.  “Liberace Fibonacci” is another Hammond performance for Wheelahan, though in this context it feels more indebted to Steve Reich or Philip Glass than it does Richard Wright.

It is within Tarcutta’s next three cuts that transcendence is achieved.  “You Gotta Crawl Before You Walk Before You Waltz,” in addition to being the album’s first single, is also the first instance in which the band proves that less can be more.  Basically split into two juxtaposed sections, the song simmers with introspective ambience for more than two minutes before galloping to an epic finale in which so much tension is generated that it feels as though the song is practically enveloping itself.  With less shifts in gear to concern oneself, it’s easier to connect the dots and spot the thematically linked ideas that span the track.  Even better is the fact that without the multiple mood changes, the song makes a genuinely bigger statement.

“Cicada Cycle” cleverly uses a combination of droning organ and clickety-clack percussion to simulate an ill-advised trip through a dark and foreboding forest of chattering insects.  It’s not until you hear the organ’s slowing hum and gurgle toward the track’s end that it becomes apparent just how adept these guys can actually be at understatement. “No Light No Shade” might just be Tarcutta’s crowning achievement; with textures that evoke both Death Cab for Cutie and Sigur Rós, the track finally sees the organ taking a backseat to some surprisingly unfussy drumming and hypnotic guitar work.  As an unexpected bonus, the song’s concludes with a dense and bluesy coda that includes tastefully executed guest vocals from Jess Cornelius of Teeth & Tongue.  It’s prime goose bump material, to be sure.  We are then jolted out of hypnosis with the Sonic Youth-esque noise squall of “Glassed.”

The album is definitely a mixed bag (how disappointing that after the brilliance of “No Light No Shade,” the band concludes with tracks like the unnecessarily named “Evan And Luna Take On The Coca-Cola Teenqueens Conspiracy And Kick Its Arse” and the thrashy “Flaghags Must Die”), but don’t expect Tarcutta to fall off the radar just yet.  There’s plenty of promise in these songs that hint at mightier things to come.  No one really though Radiohead was going anywhere after Pablo Honey, either.  And perhaps just like Radiohead, these guys might also meet success when they realize that rocking less furnishes more captivating music.