Tamer Animals by Other Lives - (LP, CD, download)
The mysterious cover image is apt: Other Lives are not easy to grip or pigeonhole. The word that seems to come up most frequently in pieces about them is 'cinematic' and there is a Morricone-like soundtrack quality to some of what they do, but that is only part of it.
They come from Oklahoma, and that also seems apt - big sky, cowboy country to drive spacious music, but also unfashionable, out of the mainstream. You have a sense that this is a band that has ploughed its own furrow - got on with building and honing their own sound without following too closely what everyone else has been up to.
And honed is what their sound certainly is. With their second album as Other Lives (there was an initial release back in 2006 as Kunek) there is an intricacy, care and confidence about the way they have put their pieces together.
So, what's going on here? A five-piece playing cello, violin, French horn, trumpet and clarinet between them as well as the more usual rock band staples. And they've roped in some mates to add bassoon and bass clarinet and fill out the string section. Front man Jesse Tabish's vocals and the backing voices are frequently washed with echo to give a choral effect.
There are echoes of Calexico's wide-screen Americana but also of British prog and of classical minimalism. (I have been listening to old Henry Cow albums recently and I don't think it's entirely fanciful to find echoes of the inventiveness, seriousness and rigour of their arrangements here - though without their attraction to discord...) The vocals don't sound particularly American – there are almost Liverpudlian cadences on occasion: I suspect John Lennon's influence.
There are lush melodies to draw you in and complex instrumentation to keep you hooked. I particularly like the arrangements in the lower register, with cello and woodwind often intertwining with the bass leaving you unsure exactly which instrument is playing what. The vocals are sometimes forward, sometimes further back in the mix; the lyrics seldom straightforward. You pick out evocative phrases rather than whole stories:
Solitary motion, in the wake of an avalanche.
Deer in the headlights...
I presume this title song 'Tamer Animals' is a way of describing being human.
Let me describe a few songs, but I'd strongly recommend immersion in the whole album, there's always something different coming along...
'Dark Horse' is a delicate and uplifting opener, with stabbing brass supporting echoed vocals and a bass clarinet or bassoon galumphing underneath. 'We're bringing down the dark horse' Tabish repeats - a relative of the Black Dog, perhaps?
'As I Lay My Head Down' follows, more urgent with a tricksy time signature and a choral sound.
The single, 'For 12'. Their astronaut video feels appropriate - fingerpicked acoustic guitar through electronic swirls, the vocal high in the mix, flirting with falsetto. A descendant of Major Tom?
It feels like forever
When your mind turns to fiction.
'Woodwind Loop' does what it says, with a nice interplay between bassoon and clarinet overlaid with strings.
The final instrumental, 'Heading East' sets a hooting French horn against a wash of strings and brings things to a gentle close.
I hope that will have whetted your appetite: do give Tamer Animals a try.