Tarwater: Dwellers on the Threshold

[21 October 2002]

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

Sweet Krauts

What is up with the Germans these days? While George W. Bush is going all warrior-god and Don Rumsfeld looks like he’s always humming “Ride of the Valkyries” under his breath, the last country to actually try to conquer the world is leading a chorus of “Give Peace a Chance”. And hey, more power to them. It’s just kind of weird to hear lectures on aggression and imperialism delivered auf Deutsch. These certainly aren’t your grandfather’s “jerries”.

Take the latest release from Tarwater, for example. The kind-of electronic/kind-of post-rock duo specializes in meandering sing-song “track modeling” (their phrase—it probably sounds better in German), producing pleasantly atmospheric albums distinguished by a very un-Teutonic warmth. Like many of their contemporaries, Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok (also a member of To Rococo Rot) trace their musical roots partly to experimental forebears ranging from Neu to Kraftwerk. But where those 1970s bands emphasized the type of arch alienation that launched a dozen Saturday Night Live “Sprockets” skits, the current generation (influenced, no doubt, by smiley-face club culture) is a lot more laid back. Not that Tarwater ever gets warm and cuddly, exactly. They’re still a little dirgey. It’s an accessible dirginess, though, more chill-out than chilly.

Dwellers on the Threshold is the fourth Tarwater LP, and it doesn’t really mark much of an advance from prior releases. The songs are a little more clearly defined than on their much-heralded breakthrough album, 1999’s Silur, but that’s not all to the good. There’s not quite as much playfulness in the integration of soundtracks, spoken lyrics, and assorted noise inserts. And where 2000’s Animals, Suns & Atoms started an evolution toward almost-pop melodies, Dwellers on the Threshold doesn’t really advance that progression. A few songs—“1985,” “Perfect Shadow”—have the makings of memorable hooks, but most of them settle for repetitive chord sequences that tend to blend together. Of course, that seems to be the intent. The CD’s title apparently refers to Jestram and Lippok’s ambivalence about songwriting per se—wherever the line between pop craftsmanship and ambient atmospherics may be, Tarwater is most comfortable straddling it. So what we get is an unhurried exercise in genre stretching, with tubular bells and whistles, gentle guitar runs, and a lot of Lou Reed-style muttering.

It’s hard to say what the songs are about, specifically, but there’s a general sense of post-millennial blurring—of borders, of cultures, of musical approaches. Like a lot of music coming out of Europe these days (and Asia and Africa, for that matter—pretty much everywhere except the US) Tarwater’s albums are more defined by era than geography. Their German roots are unmistakable, but the sound is international; and not just because the lyrics are in English—I can imagine the disc playing in any hip juice or bubble tea bar in the world. It is, maybe, what post-imperial culture sounds like.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tarwater-dwellers/