Playing name-that-tune with Tussle isn't easy. The San Francisco group makes instrumentals. As founding member Nathan Burazer puts it, they're "not very word-oriented." And neither am I, it turns out, when faced with the challenge of matching the eight out of nine songs I've heard from their propulsive Cream Cuts (Smalltown Supersound) with the album's final track listing. For a minute, I try to get new member, bassist and electronics player Tomo Yasuda, to ID songs based on my descriptions, but noting that one number "Transparent C" has a beep-beep motif, not unlike that of a Road Runner cartoon, only gets us so far. There's some merriment when another song with handclaps that a mutual pal describes as the "gay one" turns out to have the title "Rainbow Claw." But in the end, it's easiest to discuss and define Cream Cuts while listening to it.
Which is fine with me, because from first listen I've considered Cream Cuts one of the best albums of the year a metamorphosis in which the band's rhythmic core becomes more sinuous, its atmospherics more expansive, and its overall sound both deeper and more party-ready. Though the foreboding planet-of-the-vampires ambience of "Third Party" would not be out of place on Cluster's underrated Cluster 2 (Brain, 1972), Burazer is clear that he and fellow original member Jonathan Holland are striving to move beyond the "File under: ESG" or "File under: Can" download dog-tags sometimes attached to their 2004 debut Kling Klang (Troubleman Unlimited) and 2006's Telescope Mind (Smalltown Superound). In fact, "File under: Wu-Tang" would be a more interesting and correct frame of reference for the new release's downtempo moments. "We listen to a lot of hip-hop," Burazer says. "A lot of Wu-Tang, Ghostface, Lil Wayne, and J-Dilla."
The cover art for Cream Cuts, by Simon Evans and Lart Cognac Berliner, uses hand-woven colored paper. The music inside is bathed in moonlight. This nighttime resplendence is apt, since all four current members of Tussle including Holland's fellow drummer Warren Huegel are fans of the blind street musician and compositional visionary Moondog. But whereas Moondog's old stomping ground was Sixth Avenue in NYC, Tussle is creating a SF city sound. It's a sound that can be traced back to North Carolina in 1994, when Burazer and Holland first turned one room in a shared apartment into a place to make music. On new tracks such as "ABACBA" and "Titan," the jam session intuitiveness at the core of Burazer's and Holland's bond takes on a new finesse, momentum, and flair for drama.
All of the above reach anthemic immediacy on Cream Cuts' "Night of the Hunter." There, the chunkiness of past Tussle recordings gives way to a more fluid and formidable funkiness. It takes a certain nerve to give a song the same name as a classic film, but Burazer has an innate understanding of the Southern menace and beauty within Charles Laughton's 1955 masterwork. The electronics player's childhood in Carolina included time spent in a cult. "My parents and I were full-time volunteers in this hospice in the mountains [that turned into a cult]," he explains. "There was a guru, everyone met on the full moon, and there was wife- and child-swapping. There were no drugs or sexual violence it was mild. But it was a cult."
The experience one I relate to somewhat left Burazer "allergic to holier-than-thou authority figures." Instead of a follow-the-leader dynamic, he and Holland built Tussle on a foundation of cooperative intuition, and they've discovered another level of open, even-handed collaboration with the group's newest member, Yasuda.
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