Artist: Rats Live On No Evil Star (Bernd Jestram & John Edward Donald)
Title: Rats Live On No Evil Star
Label: Gusstaff, Poland
Details: CD/DL. 12 tracks, 40 minutes. Released 18/10/10
Rats Live On No Evil Star is a collaboration between Bernd Jestram of Tarwater and singer John Edward Donald aka Human Elephant. Donald has an appealing baritone that has echoes of Matt Berninger of the National, and a lyrical gift for absurdist philosophizing that reminds me of the late great Vic Chesnutt. Jestram’s musical pallet has a lot in common with Tarwater, unsurprisingly, but with a more stripped down and rough-edged feel to it.
These aren’t obvious songs, often sketched out in broad strokes, but there’s a wealth of inventiveness here and Donald draws you in to his strange world. There are plenty of highlights. Robert Johnson takes a recording of the bluesman’s Stop Breakin’ Down Blues and warps it into a weird tribal / industrial two minutes. BDI Circle the Number takes its lyrics from multiple choice depression questionnaires and bundles them into a stringball of contradictory statements. For the Time Being floats like a 67 Haight-Ashbury ballad. Indeed, there’s nothing on the record that lacks a kind of slightly off-centre charm. Definitely a grower.
The duo of Ronald Liphook and Bernd Jestram are up to album number seven with the release of Spider Smile, the second for Berlin label Morr Music. Tarwater’s trademark has always been an analogue sounding electronic music that seems an era away from the gleaming laptops of many of their contemporaries. Increasingly, though, they have married electro rhythms with live instrumentation to produce a kind of skewed pop that is neither one thing nor another, but never less than interesting.
Spider Smile sounds at first like the group’s most conventional record to date with the electronics largely taking a back seat to guitars, keyboards and other traditional instruments. The songs, too, have a more accessible, even commercial, edge. Even Liphook’s trademark deadpan vocals seem more melodious than usual. Further listenings suggest that Tarwater have managed to simultaneously become more conventional and more adventurous. There is a greater eclecticism to this record than any of its predecessors. “Roderick Usher” is a lovely lilting instrumental dominated by acoustic guitar and oboe, whilst “Arkestra” introduces a new genre (to me) of electro-country. “Easy Sermon” is as urgent and gritty as the band has ever been. All eleven tracks have their own little niche, but hang together well.
The 1999 album Silur is still quintessential Tarwater for me, but the duo have managed to progress down new avenues without losing sight of what makes the band what it is. Spider Smile will not disappoint fans of the group, and is as good a place to start as any for neophytes.