Album Review: Other Lives - Tamer Animals
"We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand! / Oklahoma!"
It’s funny how a band’s surroundings can so often help sculpt their sound, at least from the perspective of the listener: Sigur Rós inevitably make us picture an ice-capped panorama, while Joy Division project gloomy visions of crumbling Mancunian industry and Nickelback effortlessly convey the panoramic evil of guttural Hell. Such geographical textures and tones embedded in a record can make for a distinctive listening experience. Other Lives hail from Stillwater, Oklahoma – a place I’ve never been to or even seen pictures of; but right from the opening strains of the band's sophomore full-length, it’s hard not to start visualising a remote, windswept Middle American vista.
Opener ‘Dark Horse’ wastes no time in charging forth with chirpy brass and strings, while ‘As I Lay My Head Down’ brims with confidence and meticulous orchestral arrangements to create a murky folk hit. Frontman Jesse Tabish sounds like a hazier Sufjan Stevens when crooning "Now that you’ve found the end / The end is all we need".
The band recorded Tamer Animals themselves over a lengthy sixteen-month stretch – with some additional help from Joey Waronker (of Beck and R.E.M. fame) – and this generous block of time clearly afforded them the time to examine each microscopic strand for all it’s worth. Ethereal strings swirl fiercely on single (and standout cut) ‘For 12’, while the record's title track continues this impressive line of haunting-yet-catchy folkdom. The tone set on ‘Old Statues’, meanwhile, stands somewhere between a Spaghetti Western and a '50s ballad, with Tabish ruefully declaring "All my words will simply die one by one". Elsewhere, ‘Landforms’ is one last soothing dose of pastoral folk before the album closes with the wonderfully lush instrumental ‘Heading East’, which helps paint those half-imagined Americana landscapes very nicely indeed.
Tamer Animals might easily get lumped in with the current sea of fashionably elaborate 'nu-folk'; such pigeonholing is unlikely to do Other Lives justice, however. Comparisons have already been drawn to Brian Wilson’s Smile, and in truth it's hard for this writer to disagree – not on account of the songs or sounds themselves, but more for the widescreen ideology that clearly helped shape them. This is an album founded on precise and unique arrangements that keep each song as interesting as the last – a skill that perhaps Radiohead and few others have at their disposal. Tamer Animals offers eleven dark orchestral hymns that interweave chiming pop hooks like some seamless sleight-of-hand magic trick. Stillwater, Oklahoma is noted as being the proud home of the 'Red Dirt Music' scene; on this evidence, they should have something else to brag about before long.
Other Lives will be launching Tamer Animals with an in-store performance at London's Rough Trade East next Monday (August 29), before playing the city's Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen venue the following night (tickets still available here). Read about some of the sounds that helped inform the making of the album in our My Life In Records feature with multi-instrumentalist band member Jonathon Mooney.