Tarwater: Adrift

You can certainly call Adrift unique, and the title is rather a propos, considering just how laconic the album is, for one, and, for two, just how all compassing and over the map it is.



Label: Bureau B
US Release Date: 2014-11-11
UK Release Date: 2014-10-03
Label website
Artist website

"We're not minimalists," says the Berlin-based electron duo of Tarwater, comprised of Ronald Lippok and Bernd Jestram, of their latest album, Adrift, in the accompanying press release. While they may insist that they're not, the LP they've just created had me reaching to coin a new term: "Mini Pop", as in minimalistic pop. However, after repeated listens, one may come to the conclusion that the group might be right after all. If anything, Adrift scales ambition. Unlike previous releases, there are no cover versions. There are what publicity is calling four "assimilations of text" from poets, including Ann Cotton and Kerstin Cmelka. There are four instrumentals; the rest of the songs are sung. And there are reference points to the jazz meets prog rock stylings of the likes of Robert Wyatt on the record. So, just like the Transformers, there is more than meets the eye, or ear, here. In fact, Adrift is experimental, but not overly so. There are many ways into an approach of digesting this material, depending on how you predicate your own tastes. This is pop, but it's not. This is electronica, but it's not. This is prog rock, but it's not. You can certainly call Adrift unique, and the title is rather a propos, considering just how laconic the album is, for one, and, for two, just how all compassing and over the map it is.

Where Adrift's strengths lie are in how it starts and how it finishes. Opener "The Tape" is astounding. If you took Lou Reed (bless his soul) and paired him with Mick Jones of the Clash, the song is precisely what you'd get. Against the subtle thud of an acoustic bass and beats that clunk and plunk, the song is fragilely ornamental and vaguely Oriental sounding. In some alternate universe, the song is a hit. It has a lure that hooks into your ear as Tarwater reels you in, and is far and away the song that makes Adrift what it is. It would be almost ambient – music for airports, perhaps? – if it wasn't so darn appealing. Closer "Rice and Fish", meanwhile, provides an interesting counterpoint to "The Tape", and if you play the two songs back-to-back, you get an excellent single. Even if "Rice and Fish" is more of a b-side than anything, it captures the same overall vibe and feel of "The Tape", so much so that you have to wonder about the sequencing of the album a bit as the song that follows "The Tape" is the title track, which is an angelic bit of plucked guitars. Interesting as it is, it doesn't seem to follow as well as "Rice and Fish" would have. Anyhow, "Rice and Fish" is a textured song with lush low-in-the-mix background female vocals from Sabrina Milena (also known as Milenasong). Her presence here is nuanced: if you weren't listening for her, you might otherwise miss her completely.

In between these two poles, Adrift is intriguing, but not quite as memorable. "The Glove" is another "The Tape"-esque stab at acoustic-electro pop, but feels more like a kind of experimental song that's sole purpose is to provide a soundtrack to a drive at dusk with no particular destination in mind. And the lyrics are a little silly – "too many fingers to fit in the glove" – which makes you wonder about the kind of handwear that they make in Germany. Still, if you listen to it again and again, the song does open up like a flower turning its petals towards the sun. It's built like a brick house, with passages that either are very, um, minimal and others that tiptoe ever so gently into carnie music as imagined by Wang Chung. "They Told Me in the Alley", meanwhile, is beatnik in sonics with its jazzy touches complimented by video game pings and pongs, alongside some guitar work that, in texture, sounds a lot like Robert Smith of the Cure. But, again, some of the lyrics are stupendously inane: "They told me on the streetcar / It's hard to find a cat / They told me in the alley / It's hard to find a mat." I suppose this is just wordplay, but it sense no makes.

The slight flaw in Adrift is that it is unsure of what it wants to be. At first, actual songs are followed by brief instrumental passages, but the album abandons that concept about halfway through the record. (Adrift, indeed.) And, of course, the album is punctuated with bizarreness in the lyrical department, and I'm not sure if that's just something not translating properly from German as a possible first language into English. However, the albums use of hand drums, various percussion and acoustic bass tones does create some rather choice rhythmic possibilities. And, if you can look past the holes in the paper, as it were, the LP does have its subtle gems. If you feel aimless or directionless, spending time with this album will positively augment that feeling – sort of like getting a contact high. Plus, one has to give credit to Tarwater for being an electronic outfit that focuses on the unplugged nature of electronica – if MTV Unplugged doesn't give these guys a call, well, that would be a squandered opportunity. Overall, Adrift is pleasing and gives one a moment's pause to really consider what's at work here, even if the songs in the middle of the disc are generally not overtly sterling and you can point to areas of the album where there's a weakness at work. However, as far as minimal music goes, this album makes you aware of the possibilities that can come out of texture, and there's something to be said about stripping thing down to the barest of elements and making them at least interesting and listenable. So I shall christen a new genre of music right here and now. "Mini Pop", it is, and Adrift is a pretty good representation of it.

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