I was pre-disposed to dislike Tenki. Its album-cover art was too cutesy, the physical CD of View of an Orbiting Man had no words on it, and the disc starts out with the type of clean electric guitar strumming that could have come from a demo version of "Mr. Jones". Ten seconds into my listen, I had already decided that Tenki was high on artistry and low on delivery. Fortunately, I was surprised. Not entirely won over, mind you, but surprised.
Six members and many instruments comprise Tenki. The band members (but perhaps not all of the instruments) came together in the Chicago area and have spent time in the local music scene there. View of an Orbiting Man is Tenki's second full-length album, but its first with its current lineup and with the small label Future Appletree. Tenki bases their sound around the guitars, played by vocalist Jamie Toal and Jeff Kmieciak, but creates an idiosyncratic fullness with horns, keyboards, and other instruments, including the koto, a 13-string Japanese instrument. Dexter Gold (a.k.a. Jeff Wichmann) plays the koto in Tenki and as a solo artist.
Tenki -- as you might expect from a band that uses a koto -- draws its influences from all over the map. View of an Orbiting Man feels Britpoppy, but the instrumentation and occasional forays into other sounds, such as the American roots of "Adrift, Imperfectly", keep the listener off balance. Although Tenki's sound isn't like Built to Spill's, each group shares an ability to write big, melodic songs that hint at prog rock without ever becoming pretentious in concept or ostentatious in execution. The overall feel of the album ends up being moody in the way that Marquee Moon is (just not nearly as good), and the first solo on Orbiting Man sounds like a brief Tom Verlaine passage. Tenki, despite the unusual instruments and precious album graphics, just writes pop songs, and if they happen to be a bit fuller than most, well that's okay.
While the music avoids pomposity, the lyrics don't always fare so well. Lyricist Toal lets himself get carried away sometimes, as in the album's title track, which contains the unfortunate: "The questions answered fair enough, but the reason not quite overcome". The theme of the orbiting man runs throughout the album, with Toal singing repeatedly about satellites, suns, and orbits. The repetition is ineffective just as often as its not.
For all of Tenki's musical and lyrical ambition, the production of Orbiting Man doesn't reach for much. The various instruments are separated nicely, but the vocals are frequently covered up too much to understand and not enough to let them blend in comfortably. The general sound of the disc tends to be muddied (rather than artistically lo-fi).
If View of an Orbiting Man opens with a bland guitar, then it closes with its finest moment, the nearly 6-minute "Croupier". The song starts out with a simple guitar progression and some clever and quickly-spat lyrics examining life as a gamble (it's better than it sounds). When the horns come in, you won't be able to resist nodding along. It's quickly back to the vocal-and-guitar section, with the vocals providing the key rhythmic structure. Mid-way throught "Croupier", Tenki plays a soft break that builds to a complete rock-out final verse and conclusion that has the energy of a live jam, but the precision of a controlled studio performance.
We don't get to "Croupier" until the very end of View of an Orbiting Man, however, and the first nine tracks don't live up to this one. The album certainly has some fine moments, including "Love Sick" and "Lucky" (neither are Dylan or Radiohead covers). It's an album that rocks with its own style, worth repeated listens, but far from flawless.