I used to wonder if Tuatara bristled at the word “supergroup” as much as I do, which is pretty much used to describe any time members from at least two different bands come together to make a record. Now I’m not so sure they don’t embrace it 100 percent. Since 1997’s instrumental, world music-inspired Breaking the Ethers, spearheaded by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, ex-Screaming Tree Barrett Martin, and Luna bassist Justin Harwood, the group has quietly doled out album after album of lush, evocative film soundtrack fare (some of which made it to actual soundtracks). But with East of the Sun, Tuatara has transformed into more of an all-star live-band karaoke combo, except that they write all of their own songs. A host of familiar vocalists pass the microphone, including Mark Eitzel, Victoria Williams, Gary Louris, Dean Wareham, and Rumi scholar Coleman Barks. Ottmar Liebert even shows up to play flamenco guitar on a couple tunes. The results, however, are predictably scattershot; a song or two might grab your ear or gut from time to time, but the overall experience of the album is akin to that hoary old cliché of so many cooks, bad soup, etc.
The main hurdle for the songs on East of the Sun is that they exist entirely in the studio. With so many members and participants far flung and wrapped up in their own projects, one can’t expect the band to tour with these songs. Indeed, though most of the recording was completed at Seattle’s Studio Litho, integral performances were mailed in from the other three corners of the States (New Mexico, Georgia, and Connecticut), and Louris’s contributions all the way from Spain. The subsequent lack of even the barest hint of live spontaneity makes for an insular, claustrophobic set. Gary Louris’s fine “The Spaniard” for example, gets some mileage out of its close, CSNY-style harmonies, and vibraphone and trumpet abetted ambience, but it ultimately sounds just a bit too careful, too precious down to its barely there sighing “yeah yeah yeah.” Similarly, Eitzel’s “A Spark in the Wind” squanders an intriguing arrangement featuring Rahim Alhaj on Arabic oud with the singer’s mopey, fourteen-shades-of-gray delivery. Slightly better is the duet between Mark Olson and Victoria Williams on “All the Colors in the World”, though even their vibrant, warbling tones don’t lift the song to the level of their own work.
However, three tracks on East of the Sun ring with promise, all collaborations with Sufi poet Coleman Barks. “Silo Spring Violets”, “Thank You Jesus”, and “Oxman Spoonmaker” aren’t exactly revelations, but were they to inspire a full album of Barks’s poetry set to Tuatara’s meandering world-folk hybrid, it would be well worth it. “Violets” is the best of three, opening with a fuzzy squall of electric guitar before giving way to more wide-open, echo-y flourishes and Coleman’s granite voice. Recalling Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, the words and music compliment each other beautifully, instilling the desire from first listen to return again and again. “I feel a great sphere of violets and water and grass riding in the night between us and the moon / … I do not know who I am or ever will” Barks intones while the band unfurls similar visions. “Oxman Spoonmaker” closes the album with dramatic interplay, Barrett Martin’s drums more insistent, Barks ruminating “The universe is an empty wine jar / We drank the wine / … Now we circle inside the empty jar like pilgrims on Hajj.” These are the ideas and directions befitting what was initially the concept behind Tuatara, which was for its talented members to sidestep away from their rock and roll day jobs and explore textures and sounds they otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t—not to assemble their friends and buddies like some kind of alt-rock fantasy team.