[28 February 2010]
The final chorus of East London-based collective Tunng’s fourth record features the lyric “let it be beautiful when we sing the last song”, and serves partially as an indicator for what to expect from the rest of the preceding songs. Ever whimsical in their previous work, maybe even capricious, they have calmed down in many ways here, letting anthemic melodies and communal sing-alongs dominate. For many bands, this is the moment when the hardcore depart as the converts are attracted by this hot new sound. If that happens for Tunng, then the hardcore weren’t worth having anyway because And Then We Saw Land does a great job balancing the grandstanding gestures with their intricate folk signatures.
Obviously some compositions work better than others, but for the most part this balancing act between anthemia and meticulous detail works very well. Possibly the most attractive example of this comes early on. “Don’t Look Down Or Back” has a monumental chorus complete with rasping electric guitar, and is curiously unreliant on the electronic burbles that decorated much of their earlier work. It is straight-forward rock, competent and with enough balls to warrant at least some radio play, one would hope.
But what has become of all those titters and all that soundscaping that was so prevalent on their first three records? Well, it was always a matter of cramming it in, so it seemed. Songs like “Woodcat” (from their second record) were incredibly beautiful, but so busy with artificial life. Not necessarily any more or less valid than the work here, but it has naturally taken a back seat after the strange sonic caricaturing and genre experiments of Good Arrows, the album previous to …And Then We Saw Land. The technology is there as an extra instrument, not a defining element as it used to be. By stylistically streamlining themselves, Tunng have reached new creative and effective areas.
This streamlining has also meant that the acoustic side of their nature has expanded – brass and delicate piano make felt contributions when needed. “Hustle” demonstrates this lean towards acoustic instruments. We initially hear a boinging synth motif, which is mingled with and eventually superseded by that delicate piano before the familiar guitars of Mike Lindsay arrive. Vocally, little has really changed for Tunng—the tales are still defiantly English and bedroom-bound, but no less warm for it. Becky Jacobs has a more pronounced role in the vocals than on previous albums, which is welcome.
Anyone thinking that these new-ish tendencies toward the slightly more obvious melodies mean that the experimental Tunng have been taken out the back and shot need only listen to the outro of “October”. Buoyant, minimalist guitar/piano cross-rhythms are as intellectually attractive as anything appearing on Warp Records, but sweetened ever so slightly by the safety of the melodies. All in all, it’s an impressive package and one that, had they continued down the path of their last record, might not have been quite so. If crossing over into the mainstream happens to one indie stalwart this year, then there are many, many worse artists than Tunng for it to be.