Oklahoma quintet is undeniably accomplished but fails to ignite.
Oklahoma's Other Lives released their self-titled debut album in 2009, following the breakup of frontman Jesse Tabish's previous band, Kunek. Other Lives's latest offering, Tamer Animals, sees the quintet reaching for a fuller, epic sound full of sweeping cello and violin lines rounding out the guitars, drums, and keys. It's all rather hushed and downtempo, but with a wide-open-spaces feel to it, Tamer Animals isn't exactly mopey music. It is introspective, though, and well suited to staring out the window on long rainy afternoons.
Opener "Dark Horse" introduces elements that will be used throughout the album, namely a languid tempo, layers of sound including trumpet, strings and percussion, and Tabish's moaning mournful vocals, which are quick to glide into falsetto. Subsequent tracks vary the proportion, with "As I Lay My Head Down" offering a quicker tempo to go with its Thom Yorke-esque vocals, and "For 12" building swirling towers of synth confection atop a bed of brisk acoustic guitar.
Looking for a sax solo or bit of guitar wankery? You're out of luck. These songs all give the feeling of being carefully constucted, layer upon layer. The good news is this results in a feeling or organic wholeness, but the bad news is that nothing in particular stands out — not a song, not a lyric, not an instrumental break. The record possesses an extraordinary evenness.
The record's publicity material makes much of this, positioning Tamer Animals as a "proper long player" that one should listen to from beginning to end. What I remember about those old LPs, though, is that the expectation that they would be listened to did not equal the expectation that all the songs should follow the same pattern. With a few exceptions — I'm looking at you, Pink Floyd — most bands that released LPs took some pains to include variation in song structure or tonal palette, if nothing else.
This record, however, keeps the overall vibe of dreamy spaciness — or it is spacey dreaminess? — throughout. With no obvious standout tracks, the album builds a degree of momentum but fails to ignite with any particular tune. The effect is something like watching waves beat against the shore. There is movement and rhythm and melody, but there is also an overall sameness. Whether this is a problem will depend upon the tastes of the listener. Some of the tunes are undeniably pretty, such as "Dust Bowl III", with its haunting melody and cryptic lyrics, and "Desert," with its unexpected dose of off-kilter percussion.
Somewhere around the midway point, listener fatigue sets in. Maybe it's the tempos, maybe it's Tabish's lethargic vocal delivery or the murky, lo-fi recording, but the songs begin to have much more in common than they do anything to differentiate between them. Tunes like "Woodwind," "Desert" and "Landforms" are tough to call to mind even after several listens. It's not that there is anything abrasive or unpleasant or wrong with these songs, it's just that they all feel cut from the same pattern. Listeners who like the pattern will love the record. The rest of us might well feel tempted to switch to something else after four or five songs.