Eight albums and 12 years into its partnership, the Berlin duo has crafted an almost ideal mix of organic and synthetic sound, pop tunefulness and electronic experiment, uneasy lyrics and body-moving rhythms.
Electronically-adept but fond of pop hooks, unsentimental but never austere, Tarwater has always toyed with the mind-body problem. Here on their eighth full-length, the band's two principals -- Ronald Lippok (ex of To Roccoco Rot) and Bernd Jestram -- find a nearly perfect balance between digital cleanliness and human warmth. Slipping sensual beats under intellectually challenging abstractions, Spider Smile expands on the brainy pop forays of 2005's The Needle Was Travelling and takes them another step forward.
Consider how "World of Things to Touch," one of the disc's highlights, begins in a squawk and squall of synthesized sounds, then resolves like a developing Polaroid into lighthearted rhythmic pop. The cut is breezily, easily in motion, built on a groove that carries you blithely through the song. And yet, there's something uneasy buried within the verses, a tension between sensuality and intellect that turns up in lyrics like: "She wondered how far he had come / and what it cost him to return / all the memories he brought back / would be deleted by / the world of things to touch."
Or later, on "A Marriage in Belmont", when icy cascades of keyboard notes splatter over a hip-shifting beat, you can almost hear the clash of pristine intellectuality and the pleasures of dancing. The lyrics are opaque, at intervals rife with natural imagery, as the protagonists hang upside down like bats or, in the song's most evocative lyric "walk ... into the cobalt blue." There seems to be a desire to merge with the natural world, express both in organic sounds and nature-loving lyrics. And yet there's something chilly and observant in these songs that separates the dancer from the dance.
Spider Smile has more vocal-less cuts than The Needle Was Travelling; roughly a third of the album is instrumental. These are a bit less accessible than the ones with words, yet quite lovely in their own terms. "Shirley Temple" opens the disc, and has a slow echoey dignity to it, its overhanging harpsichord tones merging with space-ship howls and drones. And "Witch Park" is sheer syncopated joy, metallic clangs and reverberating drum slaps bouncing off synthetic keyboards, some sort of Eastern-flavored woodwind buzzing around in the background.
There's a certain amount of philosophy embedded in these songs, and an unsettling end-of-days tinge to at least a couple of them. "Lower Manhattan Pantoum" opens with the observation that it's, "Always a bad sign / People on the sidewalk looking up", abstractly evoking a certain September day early in the decade, but without exactly saying so. "Easy Sermon" also refers to current events obliquely, describing a time, "When every scripture leads to rapture ... When towers are falling and muezzins are calling / The message will come to the deaf and the dumb." And yet the beat is so insistent, the keyboard melody so clear and cool-headed, that you might easily miss the politics.
And really, that's okay, because Spider Smile is the kind of album you can play in the background (or foreground) for sheer musical pleasure. It's full of beautiful beats and fluctuating layers of melody, its lyrical fragments, delivered in a deep echoing monotone, can stick in your head without ever attaching themselves to literal meanings. You can dig deeper -- there's plenty underneath -- but there's plenty to enjoy on the surface.