The strings that bind an album together are sometimes its most distinctive feature. Just as what remains unsaid—in the margins, between the lines—may be a novelist’s true subject matter, what unites an album is often not included wholly in the songs themselves. Rather, it is implied in their relationships to each other. On Spider Smile, Tarwater’s second album released by Morr Music—the unifying force is a willful insistence in presenting ideas, both lyrically and musically, which cannot be fully reconciled. These disconnects of style create a context in which the album can be considered as a whole.
I doubt that the Berlin-based duo of Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok had this in mind as they were writing and producing, but the schism in their collective sensibility is evident, and neatly summed up in the relationship between Spider Smile‘s first two tracks. “Shirley Temple” is an ominous, plodding opener, which rides a descending bass-line to nowhere in the company of twitching, neurotic orchestration. It is the disclosure of something menacing which remains unnamed. Without a word it suggests a problem without resolution. The next track, “World of Things to Touch” revels in lightness and discordance, evincing a thoroughgoing ambivalence toward its eponymous subject matter. Lyrically, it is treated as disruptive in the verses, but the way it is sung in the chorus makes it seem altogether more innocent, natural if problematic. The vague dread of “Shirley Temple” gives way to focused, studied ambivalence.
These are the two postures that Tarwater adopts on Spider Smile. The relationship between the two is what binds it together as an album. That the first dose of dread is delivered in a package labeled “Shirley Temple” evinces Tarwater’s quirky fascination with America, more past than present. “Roderick Usher” is another instrumental track, though one far more pensive than menacing. It suggests the boundlessness of purgatory rather than an impendent hellishness. Little Shirley Temple is aligned with the latter, a soundscape reverberating with the inflamed gloom of Edgar Allen Poe, while his doomed Usher is cast into spectral space, one not without an infusion of warmth. The tone of the first is disturbed, the second, melancholic. There is a vast chasm separating the two.
“When Love Was the Law in Los Angeles” is a more nuanced expression of Tarwater’s attitude toward America as something both fallen and changeable. Love is certainly no longer the law in Los Angeles—if it ever was—but in their assertion that there was a time when it was, they seem to disclose a belief that it can be again. While “Shirley Temple” picks at the darkness beneath America’s most innocuous images of itself and “Roderick Usher” unearths the notes of grace amidst its homespun horrors, “Los Angeles” evokes an America that was and was not, one that exists solely as image to a generation that aligns it with decadence and avarice.
Similarly, a song like “Easy Sermon” shows the band at its best and poppiest, crafting breezy, lightly-layered songs centered around evocative, associative lyrics sung in a subtly effecting monotone. There are misses as well. Focused too heavily upon an anchor of a refrain, “A Marriage in Belmont” comes off seeming plastically histrionic. But Tarwater has a sort of lo-fi charm and wed to their passion for using the studio as an instrument it makes them engaging. And, it is nice to hear thoughtful commentary, some of it wordless, on America from outsiders these days, free from ideology, bitterness or uncritical approval.
The Notwist – Neon Golden
To Rococo Rot – The Amateur View
Tunng – Mother’s Daughter and Other Songs