An artifact from the recent past, pulled from the ground... or maybe the sky?
"Hail unto thee ancient sun, / Thy setting, joyful tum", begin the words inscribed inside the CD booklet of Tum, as if it were an archaeological artifact excavated from an ancient ruin, a temple or a tomb. The Bloomington, Indiana-based band the Impossible Shapes has often treated recordings like artifacts -- especially the rarer, limited-edition ones. Tum began its life in January of 2005 as a vinyl LP with a painted cover. Only 300 were made, lending the LP a future significance, in concept at least, similar to those treasured objects that are dug up a thousand years later and held in reverence.
Of course the very fact that the LP is now, a mere year and a half later, available on CD as a "reissue" means that the "holy grail" status was more an idea than an intended reality. But it's an idea consistent with the musical universe of the Impossible Shapes. The physicality of our world -- bodies, dirt, trees -- is often paired with talk of other worlds in their lyrics, of universes and alternate planes. Their music offers a dreamy, sometimes almost inscrutable version of psychedelic folk music with space-rock tendencies. The earth-sky balance coalesced on their 2003 album We Like It Wild, reportedly recorded in a barn in the woods somewhere. It brought the rustic country side of the band to the fore without lessening the mind-tripping side, making their music more visceral and immediate while still transporting. 2005's Horus followed that lead, brilliantly.
But a month before Horus came this mysterious object, Tum. It's more freewheeling, looser in style than their "proper" albums. Yet it still feels structured in its own way. Tum opens with strings playing a melody that recurs throughout the album; it's a dark repeating tune that has the workings of a chant or incantation. From it, though, the mood shifts into more of a laidback country-pop shuffle. And from there it drifts off into a lazy daydream, gathers a mood of anticipation, occasionally rocks up a cloud of dust but always settles back into its dream state. Chris Barth sings about the "electric sky" and other obscurities in a hazy but devoted way, always sounding either like he's seeking an eternal truth or has just found it. Pure melody is a central component to their songs, but it's never delivered straight-ahead like a pop hook. And the proceedings are consistently interrupted -- or woven together -- by that same introductory tune.
Everything feels circuitous and also circular, like we're inside a labyrinth. Within this maze are absolutely compact songs, but also rather cloudy trips into an experimental blend of styles. And of course it's all mixed up, so the album as a whole resembles one seamless sort of larger entity, more than a collection of pop songs. It has its own unique flow, and it's easy to fall in head-first.
Some of Tum seems like textbook psychedelia -- backwards vocals, tunes repeating like prayers, voices obscured in fog, and lyrics about "the ancient sun". Yet somehow the dominant feeling, and the varied moods and styles within the whole, ensure that is never feels like a rehash. They're pulling out expansive pastoral folk jams and bubblegum pop and warped space-rock all at once, making a compelling style that's at once fantastical and physical. They're off in their own heads, but they're also offering us something raw and often beautiful to hold on to while they're gone.
The Impossible Shapes, formed in 1998, have been perfecting this grounded type of drifting, capturing an odd dual sensation of flying and sitting, long before the critics dubbed their general style of music "freak-folk." Tum might not be their most potent work -- it lacks the explosiveness of their most recent two albums -- but it also might be their most intoxicating. It's a recording that sounds like a bridge between worlds, just as in its cover art, song titles, and original "rarity" status it seems designed to resemble a totem, representative of some other plane of existence.