[14 December 2007]
Tuxedomoon is now in its thirtieth unassuming year in existence. The group’s astonishing longevity may be as much a product of its members’ free-spirited attitude towards music making (there have been many interruptions, solo projects and hiatuses over the band’s history) as of its continued musical innovation. The group has long since settled into the subtle post-rock niche in which it sits. Vapour Trails, the group’s latest in a spate of recent releases over the past few years, is another of these releases that will be primarily appreciated by long-term fans. Also this year, Crammed Discs is releasing a deluxe 30th anniversary box set that includes Vapour Trails along with a variety of rare and live tracks and a live DVD. Irrespective of the career-spanning overview that’s needed to put the group’s new work firmly in context, the new album is primarily notable for its relaxed sense of poise.
The credits of Vapour Trails call out Euterpe “muse of music, as invoked by Peter on Filopapou Hill”. One can only imagine that solemn and (potentially) wine-fueled ceremony at the Monument of Philopappos, with its magical view of the Parthenon in the evening light. Places such as these, with their thrill of history, effortlessly invoke the feeling of awe. But Tuxedomoon’s music, though it occasionally approaches the same, mostly oscillates at a lower level. There’s still a strong 80s vibe to the group’s sound, primarily due to the prominent saxophone and clarinet lines, and an echo-filled production palette. The sound is layer-upon-layer, and yes there are new laptop effects seamlessly incorporated, a creaking, rising figure on “Dark Temple”, for instance. But this music still feels slightly dated; but then in the same breath the datedness is charming, because it’s so self-assured, so unhurried in the face of an otherwise ever-changing musical landscape.
The vaguely mystical tenor of the lyrics on Vapour Trails matches this unhurried spiritual outlook. “It happens without warning / A miracle occurs”, Steven Brown declares at the outset of “Still Small Voice”. These moments alternate with images of remarkable mundanity. “Big Olive” describes (partially in Greek) a peaceful Athens Sunday, with “clothes hanging out to dry” and the smell of meat. The music doesn’t match this serenity, with a strong loop of fuzzy guitar funk and jazzy piano chords. Brown’s spoken-word delivery relishes a strong American accent in the style of Leonard Cohen during the verses; the Greek section has the feeling of an invocation.
“Kubrick” echoes with electronic effects that sound like flies buzzing over a still lake. Sure, this music can be evocative, but it runs the risk of disappearing into the background when ambient saxophone notes, held out over tens of seconds, merely repeat without quite developing fully. But when stretched almost to breaking point, as on the album’s most complete composition “Epso Meth Lama”, this music combines the chanting repetition of a mantra, the tinkling jitter of free jazz piano, and the loops of minimal ambient sound. Over the long crescendos and detours of the song’s nine minutes, a steady sense of wonder builds, and you can begin to apprehend something of the group’s inspiration, that evening on the hill in Athens.
Vapour Trails is only occasionally that powerful. If you’re not a long-time fan of Tuxedomoon, you may be left a little bewildered by some of the band’s seemingly incongruous musical directions. For those of you, the fans would probably give advice along these lines. Just go with it. You need that kind of attitude to really get into Tuxedomoon. By now, you may already know that.