The phrase “scandalously neglected” might have been invented for Tarwater. Since the mid-1990s, the duo has made beguiling, slithering, treacle-funky, avant-garde, robotic music—outside the mainstream, with the consistent focus of someone working on a spacecraft with which to exit this planet (as if inspired by the finale of A Canticle For Leibowitz). Parts of Inside The Ships might fit such a vision, and the album is among the group’s best releases, pulling back, as it does, from the mid-range fuller song style of The Needle is Travelling to the quirkier world they have inhabited on some of their finest songs: “Seven Ways To Fake A Perfect Skin”, “To Describe You”, “Imperator Victus”, “Metal Flakes”, and “All of The Ants Left Paris”.
Crucial factors are the recorded voice of Ronald Lippock (slammed by some critics as “dour, uninflected” but to my ears just about perfect for the task at hand) and also the group’s adept choice of words. Lippock might almost be working in a haiku style at times, with language tending to hang in the air, further apart than words in a narrative connection, yet feeling just right. He conveys a sense of alienation combined with an air of humanity and gentleness, through the detached confidence in his (sometimes doubled) voice. This allows the most forthright banality or Dadaesque phrase to appear meaningful, natural, full of portent, and for the songs to have an emotional resonance. His phrasing and emphasis are also extraordinary, as unique and intriguing as Peter Cook or Bill Fay.
Lippock’s voice is set against insistent, but never brutal, rhythms of repeated machine-like loops, but there is more to Tarwater than the dull thud which passes for so much of modern life—particularly, a willingness to include slightly unusual instruments, be they brass, woodwind, or bowed. This time around, tuba, chanter, cymbalom and (apparently) paprika add to the nuance by which, at their best, Tarwater seem to stretch sound and time. Lyrically, images of nature and science are juxtaposed and there are some lines that have an air of an apathetic MC who long ago sat down to read a book—especially the title track: a puzzling and amusing tale, wherein a list of fictional dances are listed such as The Quicksand, The Robber Times, The Crucial End, The Freakadela and (possibly) the Chocolate Foam (or Phone). A wizard version of Lennon & Ono’s “Do the Oz” appears to fit right in amongst these concerns (although it is worth noting it was written in solidarity with Oz magazine). There is also a cover of D.A.F’s “Sato Sato” (the first time anyone has sung in German on a Tarwater album, and evidence of the sound of words being more important than their meaning). Final piece “Palace at 5am” has lyrics based on a text by Charles Baudelaire but, as luck would have it, unusually weak vocals by Ronald Lippock.